Nature Nut: Big, fast and numerous, golden eagles are champion raptors
It was Saturday morning, a week ago, with the temp at minus-2. I began the day in the dark, shoveling the 4 to 5 inches of snow we had gotten overnight, with a view of three planets forming a triangle in the southern sky. I assume one was Venus, another either Jupiter or Saturn, and the smallest, the reddish Mars.
But, the goal for the day for six of us from Rochester would be to look skyward to try to see golden eagles. We would be driving around in Houston County looking for this most widely distributed of all eagle species.
Scott Mehus, education director at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, first began seeing wintering golden eagles in the region 25 years ago. For the past 15 years he has conducted a survey on a Saturday in January, which now includes more than 200 volunteers counting these majestic birds.
Scott’s surveys first started in a handful of designated sections in the Driftless Area of Southeast Minnesota, Northeast Iowa and Southwest Wisconsin, but now has expanded along the Mississippi River from Stillwater to Dubuque. I assume they winter here because the wooded hills and river valleys of this region provide excellent habitat for prey they like, as well as thermals for soaring to see their prey.
I was in a car with friends Jim Peterson and Dave Nelson with plans to rendezvous with a second car from Rochester at Kwik Trip in Rushford. When we went into Kwik Trip to get some snacks, I noticed a pickup parked next to us with a camera the size of my spotting scope lying on the front seat.
Inside, I approached a guy and asked if it was his truck. When he said yes, I confirmed he also was looking for eagles. We learned he had driven all the way from Lakefield, about 200 miles west of Rochester, to take part in the count. It again confirmed my belief that birders are a dedicated bunch, given the drive would have been in the dark on snowy Interstate 90.
We headed out with eyes peeled skyward, although realizing we may need a bit higher sun to get the eagles soaring thermals in their quest for prey. And, right we were, as it was more than an hour before we spotted our first bald eagle, one of more than 30 we would eventually see for the day.
But soon, we got our first look at a golden eagle soaring over hills more than a half mile away from the gravel road we were now on. I could tell it was an eagle, but the keen eyes and binoculars of some in our group also confirmed it was a golden.
Fortunately, the bird flew towards us, and I was able to snap a picture, which gave me a better look than with my eyes and binoculars. The picture revealed white feather patches on the undersides of the wings, as well as a partial white tail which not only told us it was a golden, but also told us it was a juvenile.
In the U.S., golden eagles are most abundant in western states, with some living there year-round, and others migrating into Canada to breed. Another breeding population may be found in northern Ontario and Quebec with some of those wintering further south in the U.S., and a few coming to our Driftless Area.
Goldens usually breed on cliff ledges they return to for years, and have been a favorite around the world for falconers. They are one of the heaviest of eagles, with a female banded in Wyoming weighing more than 17 pounds. Although rabbits, squirrels, and other small rodents are major parts of their diets, some western state goldens have been seen taking pronghorns and mountain goats. And, even though much larger, goldens can compete with peregrine falcons, able to dive at speeds of 150 to 200 mph.
We ended up with five goldens, a record for our zone, along with 36 bald eagles and 16 red-tailed hawks, one of which I luckily got a picture of in flight. When I spoke with Scott on Monday he indicated he had about half the survey results reported, with more than 70 goldens and 700 bald eagles thus far.
Even in this cold and snow, a trip to the Root Valley around Rushford and Houston is worth it, and you may even be able to spot a golden eagle.