White-Bellied Sea Eagle

White-Bellied Sea Eagle

White-breasted sea eagle, White-bellied fish-hawk, White-eagle, Grey-backed sea eagle

Haliaeetus leucogaster
Population size
Life Span
30 years
kg lbs 
cm inch 
m ft 

The White-bellied sea eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster) is a large diurnal bird of prey. 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 superspecies. 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 has a white head, rump and underparts, and dark or slate-grey back and wings. In flight, the black flight feathers on the wings are easily seen when the bird is viewed from below. The large, hooked bill is a leaden blue-grey with a darker tip, and the irides are dark brown. The cere is also lead grey. The legs and feet are yellow or grey, with long black talons (claws). Unlike those of eagles of the genus Aquila, the legs are not feathered. The sexes are similar but like many raptors, the female is larger than the male. A young White-bellied sea eagle in its first year is predominantly brown, with pale cream-streaked plumage on their head, neck, nape, and rump areas. The plumage becomes more infiltrated with white until it acquires the complete adult plumage by the fourth or fifth year.




White-bellied sea eagles are found regularly from Mumbai eastwards in India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka in southern Asia, through all of coastal Southeast Asia including Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Indochina, the main and offshore islands of the Philippines, and southern China including Hong Kong, Hainan, and Fuzhou, eastwards through New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago, and Australia. In the northern Solomons, they are restricted to Nissan Island. These birds occur mainly in coastal areas, islands, and estuaries but also in large inland water bodies, lakes, rivers, and wetlands. They usually breed near the water with some forest cover or in rocky areas.

White-Bellied Sea Eagle habitat map

Climate zones

White-Bellied Sea Eagle habitat map
White-Bellied Sea Eagle
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Habits and Lifestyle

White-bellied sea eagles are generally territorial; some birds form permanent pairs that inhabit territories throughout the year, while others are nomadic. Immature birds are generally dispersive, with many moving over 50 km (31 mi) away from the area they were raised. These birds are diurnal and often seen perched high in a tree or soaring over waterways and adjacent land. They spend time singly or in pairs. Small groups of White-bellied sea eagles sometimes gather if there is a plentiful source of food such as a carcass or fish offal on a ship. A pair may cooperate to hunt. During hunting the bird prepares for the strike by holding its feet far forward (almost under its chin) and then strikes backward while simultaneously beating its wings to lift upwards. They often catch a fish by flying low over the water and grasping it in its talons. Generally, only one foot is used to seize prey. White-bellied sea eagles may also dive at a 45-degree angle from their perch and briefly submerge to catch fish near the water's surface. These large birds of prey have a loud goose-like honking call which is heard particularly during the breeding season; pairs often honk in unison and often carry on for some time when perched. The male's call is higher-pitched and more rapid than that of the female.

Seasonal behavior
Bird's call

Diet and Nutrition

White-bellied sea eagles are opportunistic carnivores and consume a wide variety of animal prey, including carrion. They hunt mainly aquatic animals, such as fish, turtles, and sea snakes, but they will also take birds, such as little penguins, Eurasian coots, and shearwaters, and mammals (including flying foxes) as well. White-bellied eagles feed on carrion such as dead sheep, birds, and fish found along the waterline, as well as raiding fishing nets and following cane harvesters.

Mating Habits

dry season in Papua New Guinea; June-August in Australia
6 weeks
6 months
2 eggs

White-bellied sea eagles are monogamous; pairs remain together until one bird dies, after which the surviving bird quickly seeks a new mate. The breeding season varies according to location - it occurs in the dry season in Papua New Guinea, and from June to August in Australia. During this time a pair of White-bellied sea eagles perform skillful displays of flying such as diving, gliding, and chasing each other while calling loudly. They may mirror each other, flying 2-3 m (6.6-9.8 ft) apart and copying each other swooping and swerving. They also perform a talon-grappling display where the pair will fly high before one flips upside down and tries to grapple the other's talons with its own. If successful, the two then plunge cartwheeling before separating as they approach the ground. These birds usually choose tall trees or man-made pylons to nest in. The nest is a large deep bowl constructed of sticks and branches and lined with such materials as grass or seaweed. Nests are generally sited in the forks of large trees overlooking bodies of water. Cliffs are also suitable nesting sites, and on islands, nests are sometimes built directly on the ground. The female usually lays a clutch of 2 dull, white, oval eggs that are incubated over 6 weeks before hatching. Eaglets are covered in white down when they emerge from the egg. Although 2 eggs are laid, it is unusual for both chicks to be reared successfully to fledging (leaving the nest). One egg may be infertile, or the second chick may die in the nest. If the first clutch is lost, the parents may attempt a second brood. Eaglets usually fledge when they are 70 to 80 days old, and remain around the parents' territory for up to 6 months or until the following breeding season. White-bellied sea eagles start breeding at around 6 years of age.


Population threats

Although not threatened globally, White-bellied sea eagles have declined in parts of southeast Asia such as Thailand, and southeastern Australia. Human disturbance to their habitat is the main threat, both from direct human activity near nests which impacts breeding success and from the removal of suitable trees for nesting. In Tasmania, these birds are threatened by nest disturbance, loss of suitable nesting habitat, shooting, poisoning, trapping, and collision with power lines and wind turbines, as well as entanglement and environmental pollution. Estuaries are a favored habitat, and these are often subject to environmental disturbance.

Population number

According to the IUCN Red List, the total White-bellied sea eagle population size is around 1,000-10,000 individuals, which is around 670-6,700 mature individuals. The population in China has been estimated at around 100-10,000 breeding pairs. Currently, this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List, and its numbers today are decreasing.

Ecological niche

Being apex predators in their ecosystem, White-bellied sea eagles control populations of many species of fish, birds, mammals, and reptiles.

Fun Facts for Kids

  • The specific name of the White-bellied sea eagle is derived from the Ancient Greek leuko - 'white', and gaster - 'belly'.
  • The White-bellied sea eagle was important to different tribes of indigenous people across Australia; it is the subject of various folk tales throughout its range.
  • While hunting over water on sunny days, White-bellied sea eagles often fly directly into the sun or at right angles to it, seemingly to avoid casting shadows over the water and hence alerting potential prey.
  • Despite being efficient hunters, White-bellied eagles sometimes steal food from their own species, including their mates. They attack these birds by striking them with outstretched talons from above or by flying upside down underneath the smaller predator and snatching the prey, all the while screeching shrilly.
  • A breeding pair of White-bellied sea eagles usually spend 3 to 6 weeks building or renovating the nest before laying eggs.


1. White-Bellied Sea Eagle on Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White-bellied_sea_eagle
2. White-Bellied Sea Eagle on The IUCN Red List site - https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22695097/93489471
3. Xeno-canto bird call - https://xeno-canto.org/706575

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