Let The (Golden) Eagle Soar

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Golden Eagle

I hope I won’t disappoint you … this is not about John Ashcroft. It is about golden eagles (actually, maybe its about one golden eagle in particular).

A timely repost.

The golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) has been in decline for a very long time, so you may not know it formerly bred in a much wider range of habitats, across the entire U.S. Today it is known as a mountain eagle because this is where it is generally found, at least in North America. Any experienced birder will tell you that in places like Minnesota nine out of ten, or maybe 99 out of 100 golden eagle sightings are immature bald eagles.

Last winter my wife, Amanda, and daughter, Julia and I attended a talk (on owls) at the Minnesota Raptor Center in Falcon Heights. While there we took a tour through the facility, where several captive birds are kept. Some of these birds are in rehab and will be released, others are permanent residents because of some major disability. As we were shown around, the gracious and knowledgeable volunteer told us “Golden Eagles are not native to Minnesota. You never see them here. We get a lot of people telling us they saw a golden eagle, but I guarantee you it is always an immature bald….” And at that moment we were directed around a corner to see, in all it’s glory, a majestic golden eagle in one of the enclosures. Now, this was just after the “all our birds are brought here by our people or game officers from locations all over Minnesota” speech, so I said … “Well, there’s one there … in that cage … a golden eagle. There must be some of them in Minnesota.” I was trying not to be snide, really. The volunteer made some sort of apologies for the eagle being there, admitted it was brought in from a site in Minnesota, but stuck to her story that there are no golden eagles in the state. Whatever.

Julia, who at the time was 10, is quite an aficionado of the raptors and is pretty good at identifying them. Earlier in the year, during the summer, she pointed out to me three bald eagles and a golden eagle flying over an island in a Cass County lake. I told her “Well, you know, most golden eagles are actually immature ba…” “No kidding, dad,” she interrupted. “But really, look at the three bald eagles and the golden flying over the trees on Horseshoe Island…”

I have to admit, I could not see any of them too well … no binoculars and they were pretty far away … but the “golden” was much bigger than the others … and kind of flew differently. But they quickly passed beyond the tree line and I got distracted with other things, so I can’t count this as a confirmed sighting.

But I was diligent in coming weeks to make sure that Julia understood that this was a common mistake, and that it did no one any good to label an immature bald as a golden. The bird was the bird that it was. Correct identification is very important, and it is better to say “I don’t know” than to be definitive about something you are not really sure of. I reminded her of the time her schoolmate came up to the lake with us, and on seeing a flock of crows, exclaimed: “Look, a flock of hawks.” We were polite and merely exchanged glances, but we felt the pain of embarrassment. No, Julia, misidentification is an honest mistake but one we must work diligently to overcome. There are no golden eagles in Minnesota … that’s what they said at the raptor center … so a sighting of one of these birds would be very meaningful. Let’s get it right. And so on and so forth.

I started going to this location … my wife’s family cabin … two summers ago, and we have spent a lot of time there. Last spring we made a vow to spend as much time at the cabin as we could over spring/summer/fall. We kept our promise to ourselves and have been there quite a bit. In fact, we were there last weekend, and saw much to our surprise two bald eagles. There is very little open water anywhere nearby, so I would have thought they’d have gone down the Mississippi or to the Great Lakes, but there they were on the second weekend in January reeling over the treetops near Longville Minnesota.

But I digress. Over these last couple of years, we have watched a nesting pair of bald eagles launch into adulthood one offspring and start to raise another. There are a few nesting pairs in the area, so we see adult and juvenile bald eagles quite often. It is impossible to distinguish among individuals, so when we see one or a pair we cannot always tell if it is “ours.” But if we ever feel inclined to see a bald eagle, all we have to do is walk to the end of the dock and turn left, and one or two are almost always there, on the nest, near the nest, or perched on a nearby tree looking over the water. If they are not there it usually suffices to scan the skies and there will be an eagle soaring or fishing. Sometimes they make themselves even more obvious, like one day in November when one of the eagles took down a flying great blue heron, grabbing it by the leg, the two reeling to just above the lake surface when the eagle let go. Joined by it’s mate, the two eagles harassed the heron for quite some time thereafter.

So, one of the the late season weekends last summer, Amanda and I were sitting on the deck in front of the cabin when we saw an eagle approaching from a great distance. The bird was flying hard against a strong southerly wind (we were looking north) so as it flapped its wings it did not make a lot of progress. This meant we could see it for a very long time, get out the binoculars, watch it approach and eventually fly right over head in slow motion. It was very large. As it approached, it became clear that this was an eagle, but lacking adult bald eagle markings. Ninety nine out of a hundred times this would be an immature bald, but it simply did not look like an immature bald. It’s wings did not flap as I expected a Bald Eagle’s to flap. On first seeing the bird I thought … “This is not an eagle, maybe a heron or something” but as it got closer, there was no doubt. Amanda and I exchanged comments and opinions. “I hate to say it, but that looks like a golden.” “You know, 99 out of 100 times it’s an immature bald.” “Yeah, but the only immature bald we are seeing these days is sitting on that tree over there alarm calling.” “Right, but you know, at the raptor center, you know, but the immature balds … they look like goldens…”

Then, as the huge golden bird struggling with measured effort against the southerly fetch soared directly overhead, the bald eagles and loons crying out in alarm, Amanda said the words that made the most sense:

“Greg, we know what an immature bald eagle looks like. We see them all the time. That is not an immature bald eagle.”

So, I’m figuring it was a chickadee….. (just to be safe).

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2 thoughts on “Let The (Golden) Eagle Soar

  1. We see Golden’s here in Colorado, what with them being a “mountain” eagle nowadays. Your story about the heron reminded me of the time I saw a Bald Eagle take an American Widgeon in flight (in Washington state). As best as I can tell the eagle faked to the left and then intercepted the widgeon when it zigged instead of zagged. Spectacular!

    Indeed, flight characteristics are very useful for ID.. you might want to get a copy of Hawks in Flight: The Flight Identification of North American Migrant Raptors for your daughter, though maybe you could use it more since her gestalt approach seems to work pretty well.

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