Published on Aug 25, 2020

White Eagle Background Images

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The white-bellied sea eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster), also known as the white-breasted sea eagle, is a large diurnal bird of prey in the family Accipitridae. Originally described by Johann Friedrich Gmelin in 1788, it is closely related to Sanford’s sea eagle of the Solomon Islands, and the two are considered a superspecies. A distinctive bird, the adult white-bellied sea eagle has a white head, breast, under-wing coverts and tail. The upper parts are grey and the black under-wing flight feathers contrast with the white coverts. The tail is short and wedge-shaped as in all Haliaeetus species. Like many raptors, the female is slightly larger than the male, and can measure up to 90 cm (35 in) long with a wingspan of up to 2.2 m (7.2 ft), and weigh 4.5 kg (9.9 lb). Immature birds have brown plumage, which is gradually replaced by white until the age of five or six years. The call is a loud goose-like honking.

Resident from India and Sri Lanka through Southeast Asia to Australia on coasts and major waterways, the white-bellied sea eagle breeds and hunts near water, and fish form around half of its diet. Opportunistic, it consumes carrion and a wide variety of animals. Although rated as Least Concern globally, it has declined in parts of southeast Asia such as Thailand, and southeastern Australia. It is ranked as Threatened in Victoria and Vulnerable in South Australia and Tasmania. Human disturbance to its habitat is the main threat, both from direct human activity near nests which impacts on breeding success, and from removal of suitable trees for nesting. The white-bellied sea eagle is revered by indigenous people in many parts of Australia, and is the subject of various folk tales throughout its range.

The white-bellied sea eagle was first described by the German naturalist Johann Friedrich Gmelin in 1788, although John Latham had made notes on the species in 1781, from a specimen obtained in February 1780 at Princes Island off the westernmost cape of Java during Captain Cook’s last voyage. Its specific name is derived from the Ancient Greek leuko- ‘white’, and gaster ‘belly’. Its closest relative is the little-known Sanford’s sea eagle of the Solomon Islands. These form a superspecies, and as is usual in other sea eagle superspecies, one (the white-bellied sea eagle) has a white head, as opposed to the other species’ dark head. The bill and eyes are dark, and the talons are dark yellow as in all Southern Hemisphere sea eagles. Both these species have at least some dark colouration in their tails, though this may not always be clearly visible in the white-bellied sea eagle. The nucleotide sequences of the cytochrome b gene of the two sea eagles were among those analysed in a 1996 study. Although they differ greatly in appearance and ecology, their genetic divergence of 0.3% indicates that the ancestors of the two forms might have diverged as recently as 150,000 years ago. The study authors conclude that although the genetic divergence is more consistent with subspecies, the distinctness in appearance and behaviour warrants the two being retained as separate species. Mitochondrial sequence of the cytochrome b locus differs very slightly from that of Sanford’s sea eagle suggesting a relatively recent divergence after New Guinea-based white-bellied sea eagles colonised the Solomon Islands.


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