Friday, February 20, 2015

Golden Eagle Odyssey in the Midwest

[caption id="attachment_5849" align="aligncenter" width="442" caption="Photo: US Fish & Wildlife Service"]Photo: US Fish & Wildlife Service[/caption]

Part of learning about Golden Eagles on your first guided trip is, well--unlearning. You know, throwing away what you thought you knew about Golden Eagles in exchange for real facts. That's what happened to many of the participants (myself included) on this recent National Eagle Center bus tour. Gather 'round. I'll fill you in.

Our bus pulled away from the National Eagle Center, crossed the bridge over the Mississippi River, followed alongside the bottom land, then turned and steadily headed east--our first clue. Golden Eagles do not prefer habitat near water, as we know Bald Eagles do. It's the bluffs in this area, some of which have undergone managed burns to eliminate pervasive Red Cedars, that the Golden Eagles like. Bluffs with these clearings near (but not at) the top, called "goat prairies" or "dry prairies" are the ones we were told to scan with our binoculars.


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As we traveled, we learned. How do we tell a juvenile Bald Eagle from a Golden Eagle? This is probably the easiest ID at which to fail. Case in point: last March in Nebraska, my birding partner snapped this documentary shot (below) of what I thought was a Golden Eagle. Upon what was I basing my ID? Sheer size. True, it was very close before we could scramble to set up the camera. But just because this eagle was big, didn't mean it was a Golden. In truth, the size of both species is comparable. There are some key clues to help you distinguish one from the other.

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Tough to see details--but now I know the white wingpit on this bird confirms it as a juvie Bald Eagle. If I knew then what I know now, I could have asked myself: "Does the tail project further behind than the head sticks out in front?" And as it flew off, I would have looked for a slight dihedral in the wings while it soared. Great tips to remember to ID a Golden Eagle.

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The bus stopped periodically so we could get out and test our scanning skills. We saw a few Bald Eagles, deer, a Pileated Woodpecker, and nice views of a dark morph Rough-Legged Hawk. Horned Larks flew from the road's edge as the bus rolled by. We kept our eyes on the bluffs.



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Around the next turn, we saw a few horses and riders. Not the sighting we expected! The bus driver was planning to stop here anyway, so we piled out. Then came more horses, and more. It was the Saturday birders vs. the local Saturday trail riders.



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The riders thought we were stopping to gawk at them, so some circled back to chat with us. They told us they hadn't missed a Saturday ride all winter.

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You don't often see someone riding a big draft horse. This one was a beauty. Meet Royal.


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The last of the horses and riders trotted off to join the group heading down the road. There must have been 30-40 of them.


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Then our trip leader, Scott Mehus, shouted, "Golden Eagle!" and we turned our attention back to our day's objective. I trained my scope on the distant soaring raptor, and let my comrades have a closer look. We were pretty excited.



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Our trip naturalist, my friend Sharon Birdchick Stiteler, echoes the group's enthusiasm in this pic. The eagle was too far away to photograph, but we enjoyed watching it soar for several minutes before we moved on to the next stop.



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By now we were retracing our route; we knew that there was little time left before we were out of the territory where these eagles would be found. At least for today. But somehow, Scott and Sharon found a perching Golden Eagle on this wooded bluff (below). The light was beginning to wane, so we couldn't clearly see the bird's golden blonde nape, but it was thrilling nonetheless.



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No doubt the eagle was (*fact alert*) checking the area for its favorite western Wisconsin menu items: Eastern Cottontail rabbit, Fox squirrel, and Eastern Grey squirrel.

The sun dipped behind the rolling hills, and our bus followed back along the Mississippi River floodplain, and over the bridge to the Eagle Center, which you can see in the far right, below.



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The National Eagle Center, in the charming city of Wabasha, Minnesota, is so impressive: it's a beautiful, well-designed 15,000 square foot interpretive center right on the banks of the Mississippi River. Once inside, I met Donald, the center's Golden Eagle Ambassador--one of several eagles housed there for educational purposes. These magnificent birds were rehabbed but are unable to be returned to the wild. Programs are available daily, giving visitors an up-close experience with these fascinating raptors.



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When you're in the Midwest, I highly recommend a visit to this wonderful facility. And if you're there in winter, get out into the bluffs with your binoculars. You might be fortunate enough to see an elusive, majestic Golden Eagle yourself.

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Nina Cheney
Eagle Optics Staff
Binoculars: Bring them. See what they bring you.

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