Golden eagle!

Here are some photos from yesterday’s big golden eagle adventure; click through to see larger sizes (or click here to view them as a slideshow). As readers of Marcia’s Game News column will have just learned, the golden eagle migration last year only really got underway in late November. This year, it’s almost a month earlier. (By contrast, the autumn foliage has only now reached its peak — a good two weeks late.)

show-and-tell golden eagle 1This bird was hatched this spring, probably somewhere in northern Quebec or Labrador. It was one of at least ten goldens that soared down along our ridge on the afternoon of November 3, chased and harried by a resident redtail. It came along just before dusk, dove for the bait, and was caught in a bow trap by Trish Miller of the Powermill Avian Research Center, who was staffing a blind on an almost inaccessible part of the Plummer’s Hollow property. The eagle had to spend the night in a pen in our basement, until all the scientists could assemble and get it fitted with a radio transmitter.

show-and-tell golden eagle 2 (Todd Katzner)Todd Katzner, a scientist with the National Aviary in Pittsburgh who has extensive experience with wild eagles, was kind enough to do a short show-and-tell for us and our friends. Apparently, the white on the underside of the wings is one of the things that distinguishes a juvenile golden eagle from an adult. The talons are also a brighter yellow.

eagle talons
Typical golden eagle prey consists of hare-sized animals, Todd said. They can kill animals as large as a fox or a fawn, but they eat a lot of birds, too. They have no natural predators of their own.

touching the eagleMouth-breathing is a sign of stress, Todd said. Fortunately, it was a crisp morning — they don’t take heat very well.

measuring the beakMeasurements of wings, bill, etc. were taken not only for record-keeping purposes, but also to try and determine the sex of the bird. They compared their measurements to a list and determined that it was a female, as Todd had already surmised. Not having handled as many female as male golden eagles, they were surprised by how much thicker its down seemed to be. But that, in addition to its larger size, may be of adaptive benefit since the female does most of the incubating of the chicks in the first two weeks, until they become better at thermoregulating on their own.

weighing the eagle (Trish Miller and Todd Katzner)Weighing the eagle. It took several hours to complete the measurements and fit the radio transmitter. The eagle was hooded with a knit cap for most of that time to reduce stress, though the superficial resemblance to the infamous images of Abu Ghraib inmates was a little unsettling at first. They also bound her talons with surgical gauze after Todd cut his finger on them.

kids with eagleTrish did much of the work, since the golden eagle study is going to be the topic of her PhD dissertation. Here, her daughter Phoebe interacts with the bird.

fitting the transmitter 2A soft teflon harness was sewn together on the spot and carefully worked under the feathers. They used cotton thread, with the expectation that it will rot off in a couple of years.

fitting the transmitterThe radio transmitter is much lighter than it looks. If all works correctly, it will transmit the bird’s GPS coordinates to a satellite twice every minute.

eagle with transmitterThis shot reminded me of a pow-wow dancer, almost. I wonder if the Indians ever captured eagles along this ridge? The eastern golden eagle is nowhere near as easy to trap as its western counterpart, and when this project got started two years ago, they had a hard time getting funding because few people thought they’d be successful. This is the first female to be fitted with a transmitter in Pennsylvania.

golden eagle over Bald Eagle ValleyWe all trooped back up to the capture site to release the bird. My mother was given the honor of actually tossing the bird into the air, in part perhaps because she was one of the few people present without a camera! Unfortunately, however, my reactions are slow — I didn’t get a good picture of her with the bird. Here’s the eagle seconds after release, with Bald Eagle Valley and the Allegheny Front beyond.

eagle in pineShe flapped over into a white pine at the edge of the talus slope to groom herself. At one point, she reached around and lifted the transmitter in her beak, but then released it. It was a tense moment.

taking off from pine

She spent four or five minutes trying to straighten her ruffled feathers and get used to the feeling of the harness against her skin and the strange new backpack. Finally, she launched herself into the air, circled low over our heads once, twice, then headed off to the south along the ridge. We were awed and humbled by the experience, and still have a bit of a hard time believing that our far-from-wild ridge twice a year becomes a highway for these archetypal denizens of the northern wilderness.


UPDATE: Unfortunately, the transmitter failed after just a few days. But Trish told me they got some great data from the bird before that happened.


About Dave Bonta

I live in an Appalachian hollow in the Juniata watershed of central Pennsylvania, and spend a great deal of time walking in the woods. My books of poetry include FAILED STATE: HAIBUN, ICE MOUNTAIN: AN ELEGY, BREAKDOWN: BANJO POEMS, and ODES TO TOOLS.

Posted on November 5, 2007, in birds, golden eagle, migration. Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. Great shots! Lucky you! I’m amazed the handlers weren’t wearing gloves… We’re going to be trapping some eagles through the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center soon, I’ll let one of our epidemiologists know about your photos…

  2. Thanks, Pica. I’ll look forward to your sketches of those birds.

  3. Wow, just holding a predatory bird that size must be a major trip…. I’m amazed the worst was somebody “cutting himself” on the claws. Those are some scary-looking claws can beak there, and that’s a juvenile? (Oh right, GrrlScientist commented that birds reach their full size early.)

  4. Fantastic photos, Dave, and what a magnificent bird. I’m awed too and a bit envious that you got to be so close to her. Thanks for sharing these photos and your account with us. Maybe we Quebecois can send you a few great grey owls next…

  5. David, yes, I should’ve added that it has already reached its full size.

    beth – Great grays welcome! I’ve only ever seen snowys here. But word is that evening grosbeaks are already in the area, and pine siskins are around, so it looks as if we’re due for an irruption.

  6. Super photos and account, Dave. Must have been quite an experience to be up close to one of these big eagles. I’ve only seen Golden Eagles from relatively close range while in the west and they’re pretty awesome.

  7. Awesome photos! Would love to know more in the future about where this bird ends up – will study results be online anywhere?

  8. bev – It was an experience, all right, and one which I hope to repeat several more times this year – purely for the scientific validity of the study results, of course. :)

    Laura – Results are indeed online for the birds already tagged. See the study webpage, where you can find maps of the movements of individual birds as well as a preliminary white paper. When “our” bird gets her own map – they want to wait and make sure the transmitter works correctly first – I’ll be sure to post a link.

    I came over here from Somewhere in NJ, and I am so glad I did.
    I would love to see a golden, but they don’t care much for Ohio. I think The Wilds is the best place to see one. RAPTOR, Inc, the group I work with, hasn’t had a golden in as a rehab patient for about 20 years or so! I would so love to be near one, even just for a few minutes.
    Will we be able to track its trip via the GPS on a website? If so, please share the link!
    Thanks for the “golden” opportunity.

  10. Hi Susan – Thanks for stopping by. It will be a couple of weeks until the scientists are confident enough in their tracking device (a new model) to put the results online, but if/when that happens, I’ll be sure to post the link.

    I wish I’d thought of “A golden opportunity” as a title for this post!

  11. What wonderful pictures of that beautiful golden eagle! I am so curious and need to ask…since she was traveling with a group of 10 eagles, does this mean she now has to travel alone since she was separated from the rest. I know that if a wild goose gets injured or has to land for awhile, one of the others will join him/her until they are able to fly again and then together will continue on their migrating path.

  12. Hi – Glad you liked the photos. They weren’t travelling as a group, I don’t think, just as individuals who all happened to be taking advantage of the favorable conditions that day. They are very much NOT social birds, I think.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  13. Sort of like traveling our Interstate Highways….lol, thanks Dave for your prompt reply. Keep up with all of the good work that you do.

  14. Thank you for your great story,and your great pictures too!!!

  15. i love your website……

  16. HI! My name is Kaya Young. I am a Hunkpapa Sioux The Golden Eagle is scared to my people. I grew up with them. They are my fav. bird in the world. They are the highest Eagle of them all. This is what I should be doin for a liveing not working in a dam store. But I am from Millsboro Delaware. There ain’t much around here. Don’t know nobody here. I am from Wyomin Yellowstone Park was my backyard, Why I ever left I don’t know? Insanity set in I guess. I would love to do what you do for a liveing! I love my critters! I been around them all Great and Small. How do you get to do something like that? What kinda Camera do you use? What is the best kinda Camera to use for Wild Life? I know that the Cannon and the Nikon is the best cameras on the market in cameras. I found out that there is a nest sight of a pair of Ospreys. I would love to getta real good camera to get some good pics of them an the youngins. If you can give me your address i will send you what I get. I AM COMPUTERT STUPID when it comes to doin anything like sendin pictures on the internet. Sorry this is so ling but I don’t know any other way to say things. And the fact Ilove to write. Well I guess I shoiuld stop typeing now. Sorry! If you can hook me up somehow I would be Greatful. Wish they came to Dippy Delaware! that’s what I call it! Thanks, Kaya Young. P.S. In case you are interested the word for Eagle in Lakota is WHAMBLEE. Ahmba! (Good Bye)

  17. Anthony La Monte

    My friends and I saw one of these yesterday Feb 2nd 2010 along the Niagara River near Grand Island NY or around 7 miles from Niagara Falls. It was along the canadian shoreline. We walked right up to it. Of course it was high up in the tree but it just stayed there for a long time. It was huge. It looked to be atleast three feet tall and a wing span of 7 to 8 feet. Anyhow it was the one time my friend didn’t have his camera.

    Nice website. Thanks Anthony

  18. Incredible bird. Just fantastic to observe its size, beauty, and very apparent design as a predator. Thanks for sharing this!

  19. I always get thrilled by reading about wildlife. Thanks for the authenticity of the story.

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