Valentine Eagle

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Trail cam photos of the golden eagle at the spruce grove bait pile (email and RSS subscribers may need to click through to view the slideshow)

“Can you identify this bird?”

The question came to me via email last Valentine’s Day from our caretaker wife, Paula Scott. Accompanying her email was a photo from one of her trail cams of a large golden eagle. It was sitting on snowy ground beside the carcass of a dead cow on our talus slope.

Trish Miller, along with her husband Mike Lanzone, under the direction of Dr. Todd Katzner, at West Virginia University, had recruited numerous state forest employees and private landowners in Pennsylvania to be part of a larger study of winter eastern golden eagles in the Appalachians. Knowing Paula’s expertise with trail cams and also that golden eagles migrate along our ridge top, she had contacted Paula early in the autumn.

In her email to Paula and my husband and me as the landowners, Miller explained that this Golden Eagle Project had over 100 trail cam sites in several states but were lacking sites in Pennsylvania.

“We simply don’t have enough data on Pennsylvania wintering birds and it is especially important given your proximity to Sandy Ridge,” she wrote.

By Sandy Ridge she meant the section of the Allegheny Front across from our mountain and above the town of Tyrone where a couple dozen industrial wind mills had been erected despite Miller’s discovery, while studying for her Ph.D., that golden eagles use that area for foraging during the winter.

When Paula agreed to participate, Miller sent her a copy of the protocol for the study which she shared with me. The goal of the project was to estimate the population size of wintering golden eagles in the Appalachians. To accomplish this goal, they wanted many photographs of individual golden eagles. Then they planned to use a specially designed software package to identify individuals. Once they had identified individual eagles, they could treat the photographs as “captures’ and use them to estimate golden eagle numbers.

Trail cameras had to be set to take a picture every minute and visited every two to five days. They also had to be on a stake or small tree six feet from the carcass and the lens itself 18 to 24 inches above the ground.

The study was scheduled for two to four weeks between January 1 and February 15. Bait sites needed to be on remote mountaintop areas with small clearings and large trees nearby so that an eagle could perch in one and watch the bait for a time before actually landing on it.

The protocol also suggested that the carcasses be road-killed deer for which the biologists had permits from the Game Commission.

“Do not use hunter-killed deer for bait,” the protocol warned. “Such carcasses almost always contain lead fragments which are toxic to eagles.”

skinning a dead cow

skinning a dead cow

Several weeks later, Miller came out to look at possible trail cam sites. She finally decided on a site behind our spruce grove and another at our Far Field. She also hoped, if a golden eagle came to the spruce grove bait area, to set up a blind and try to live trap and telemeter it so the biologists could find out where the individual nested.

The protocol warned participants to make sure they had enough bait to feed eagles because a small deer could disappear in a day. Knowing how many other creatures would use the bait, Troy and Paula decided to ask their farmer friends in the nearby valleys for cows that had died giving birth. As long as those cows had no antibiotics in their bodies and their heads were removed where the farmers had shot them, they received permission to use them as well as road-killed deer and, in one case, a dead calf.

On the seventh of January, Troy, Paula, and our son Dave drove a 700lb. dead cow in the back of their truck to the Far Field, staked it down, and set up a camera. That same day they took two deer and a dead calf, chained them together, and staked them down 40 feet into the top of First Field behind the spruce grove.

And then they waited. Paula faithfully checked her cameras and sent photos to me of a barred and great horned owl, crows, a bobcat, coyotes, a fisher, a red-tailed hawk, and raccoons at the bait both night and day but no golden eagles. As the weeks passed, she grew more and more frustrated.

Finally, on the seventh of February, she persuaded Troy to haul another dead cow up to the talus slope where, several years earlier, Miller had live-trapped a female golden eagle during fall migration. The rocks were icy, and they almost lost the frozen carcass off the deer sled on the steep hill.

landscape with dead cow (Far Field)

landscape with dead cow (Far Field)

Paula was elated when she retrieved her photos and saw the talus slope golden eagle. But then she went up after 2:00 p.m. on Valentine’s Day to retrieve the most recent spruce grove photos. A big bird took off as she emerged from the spruces and approached the carcass. It was a golden eagle that had been on the bait from 12:00 p.m. until 2:00 when she disturbed it. The photos were much better than the one from the talus slope, and we wondered if it was the same bird. Even though the official study ended the next day, Paula decided to keep all the carcasses out with her cameras as long as possible. She also notified Miller, but she was unable to come and try to live trap the eagle until the following week.

Would the eagle stay around that long? On February 18 there were 198 more golden eagle photos on the spruce grove camera, but the last photos had been taken on February 17 and there were no more.

A week later, on February 27, I saw a large bird flap off the Far Field bait. I thought it was a golden eagle, and Paula later verified that it was and that it had been coming into the bait for four days. My last sighting of a golden eagle there was March 2, but by then golden eagle migration was in full swing. In fact, because it was such a warm winter, our golden eagles may have all been migrants and not wintering birds.

In the meantime, Miller and Lanzone had been rushing all over the state telemetering birds at other bait sites. They managed to capture three males and three females. In Forbes State Forest, with the help of state forester Cory Wentzel, they captured the largest known bird in eastern North America, a second winter female and the only young bird they caught. The other five were adults, one each in Tuscarora and Rothrock state forests, the Allegheny National Forest, and two private sites near Emporium. The male they caught in Rothrock was a recovery that had been originally caught in 2000 by other researchers as a first year bird during fall migration.

Miller and Katzner also exchange information with colleagues in Quebec province where most of our golden eagles go to nest. Most of the birds they telemetered in 2012 headed straight north toward northern Quebec and Labrador, one adult female took a trip around Quebec’s more southerly Gaspe Peninsula, and one male ended up on the south shore of the Hudson Bay in Ontario after a look around Manitoba. He was the first bird in their project to go west to the Ontario breeding range.

golden eagle on bait

golden eagle on bait at the Far Field (trail cam photo)

Late last summer my husband Bruce and I celebrated our fiftieth wedding anniversary trip by spending 15 days exploring the Gaspe Peninsula. We mostly followed the coast and saw numerous gray seals, fin whales, and, best of all, hundred of thousands of common gannets at their nesting site on Bonaventure Island. But we didn’t see a golden eagle, not one, not even when we followed Dr. Katzner’s directions to a nest site above a mountain road. High up on a heavily-forested ridge we spotted the nest site with our scope. Unfortunately, their nesting was over for the year. Still, we wondered how the Gaspe researchers had been able to find that site and others in the rugged Gaspe interior. Miller admitted that even though they had been there during the nesting season, they never saw a golden eagle either. Junior Tremblay, one of the Gaspe researchers, told me that “some of our nests were found with helicopter survey but most of them were found with the participation of local ornithologists who do huge work to scan many potential cliffs for the breeding eagles.”

In a recent paper published by members of the recently-formed Eastern Golden Eagle Working Group, the researchers have discovered that Quebec has the largest number of breeding eastern golden eagles at 300 to 500 breeding pairs, most of which nest above 50 degrees North. Those nests in the far north of Quebec are built on cliffs, on the edge of but avoiding heavily forested areas. Those on the Gaspe are mostly in trees in forested habitats. However, golden eagles on the Gaspe do forage in open landscapes created by disturbances and wetlands and feed extensively on birds, particularly waterfowl and wading birds.

Birds that summer on the Gaspe mainly migrate through New England, which, before the age of DDT, also had a breeding population as did New York. Those individuals winter mainly in New York and Pennsylvania and may not be counted at raptor migration watching sites farther south. Apparently, eastern golden eagles begin migrating as early as mid-August, although most migrate from mid-October to mid-December.

So far, their telemetry and camera-trapping data suggest that golden eagles winter in greatest numbers in the north-central Appalachian Mountains of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia, and on those mountains they use large blocks of forested habitat. They feed on carrion, most notably white-tailed deer.

golden eagle on bait

another shot of the eagle (see slideshow above for many more photos)

Eastern golden eagles face threats throughout their lives from a variety of sources. One is incidental captures in leg-hold traps and snares set for mammals, for instance, from 2007 to 2010 Quebec, West Virginia and Virginia reported many incidental captures and Quebec researchers suspected that many more were not reported.

Shootings, accidental or intentional, collisions with towers, power lines, buildings, and now probably with the array of industrial wind farms on their migrating mountaintop routes and in their breeding and wintering ranges, as well as poisoning are also common. Habitat loss—especially on their migration, wintering, and southern Gaspe breeding grounds—because of wind energy and natural gas extraction—is another threat, although the province of Quebec has recently banned natural gas drilling. Still, we saw numerous industrial wind farms on top of the high, rugged mountains on the Gaspe along the St. Lawrence River. And more and more such facilities have been and are continuing to be built on mountaintops in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia.

But that’s why the Eastern Golden Eagle Working Group—an international collaborative effort among scientists and managers from across eastern North America—has been formed. They hope, as they state in their paper in The Auk entitled “Status, Biology, and Conservation Priorities for North America’s Eastern Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) Population,” “to ensure the long-term sustainability of Eastern Golden Eagle populations, ultimately making the species a flagship species for conservation.”

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Here are some more photos of other wildlife at the spruce grove bait pile (click the thumbnails for larger versions). Thanks to Paula Scott for all the great trail cam photos!

 

Allegheny Front Hawk Watch

Marcia with Gene and Nancy Flament and Tom Dick (standing) at "the Ritz"

Marcia with Gene and Nancy Flament and Tom Dick (standing) at the bench Gene made--"the Ritz"

“It’s the Cadillac of hawk watches,” my husband Bruce said as we were leaving the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch.

Not only does it have a wide, grassy field flat enough for lawn chairs, a picnic table, and a portable restroom back near the parking area, but also a pair of platform benches, fondly called “the Ritz” by some visitors, positioned for optimal hawk-spotting.  What it doesn’t have are huge boulders to clamber over and perch on like many hawk watches in Pennsylvania.  For older folks like us, whose balance might not be as good as it once was, the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch is perfect.

I settled down on one of the benches at the edge of the mountain next to Gene Flament (the builder of the benches) and his wife Nancy and didn’t move for hours.  Above me, in the clear, blue sky of a breezy, early November day, raptors funneled southward.  With the Flaments, their son Randy, and the official counter of the day, Jim Rocco, we didn’t have to wonder what species any bird was no matter how high in the sky it flew.  These folks are all hardcore raptor watchers who were eager to share their knowledge with us.

Golden eagle taking off from a pine tree on Brush Mountain

Golden eagle taking off from a pine tree on Brush Mountain

Two golden eagles had already sailed past before our arrival, shortly before 10:00 a.m., and we hoped it would be a golden eagle day because when the wind is out of the east in November, as it was that day, adult golden eagles are numerous.  Below us, we could see the field where Trish Miller and Mike Lanzone, of the Powdermill Nature Reserve and Todd Katzner of the Aviary, had live-trapped and radio tagged two golden eagles for the first time in 2006. Since our mountain — the westernmost ridge in the ridge-and-valley province — is the alternate migration corridor for golden eagles in the fall, where Trish Miller trapped and radio tagged another golden eagle in 2007, we had wanted to see this particular hawk watch on the eastern edge of the Allegheny Plateau. (See my three earlier columns on the golden eagle trapping project: Golden Eagle Days (Part 1), Golden Eagle Days (Part 2), and Golden Eagle Redux.)

In quick succession, at 10:20, 10:21, and 10:38, three adult golden eagles soared past overhead, their golden crowns and napes visible on their mostly dark bodies. And that was it for us, but altogether nine golden eagles passed the hawk watch throughout the day.  Not an outstanding day for golden eagles at this hawk watch, which had as many as 51 on November 23, 2003, but with a seasonal average of 217, the chances of seeing at least a few on a November day are excellent. After all, as Tom Dick, the property owner, has said, “the golden eagle is the whole reason for the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch.”

Probably the best bird we saw was a northern goshawk that swept past at 12:30, its dark hood and white eyebrow line making it unmistakable.

“Oh, that’s a good bird,” Randy said, probably knowing that of the yearly average of 13 birds at this site, most are seen during spring migration in March and April and even then, four were the most seen on a day back on April 14, 2003.

Raptor i.d. signboard at the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch

Raptor i.d. signboard at the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch (click to see larger)

I was also pleased to have beautiful views of three of the 12 red-shouldered hawks that flew past during the day.  The first accompanied several red-tailed hawks, and all were lit up by the sun.  The second was high in the sky, its wings flapping, its neck craning.  But the third flew low and directly overhead, displaying its rufous belly and black and white tail.

As with other species we saw (two northern harriers and a sharp-shinned hawk), October is their peak month with 82 for red-shoulders on October 26, 2004. That day must have been a marvel for those watching because it was also the one that had the highest red-tailed hawk count (1,156).

We didn’t see that many red-tails during our visit, but it was a red-tailed hawk day. In fact, it was the first bird we saw when we arrived as one dove and screamed at the carved owl decoy displaying a couple ruffed grouse feathers atop a pole stuck in the grass. I lost count of red-tails after 30 because often there were three to five at a time in the sky, coming in from every direction as if they were converging for a party. We saw the larger females and smaller males, dark phase and light phase, most with white breasts and black streaks across their light bellies except for the dark phase with its dark brown breast and belly — 113 in all for us and 148 for the day.

Tom Dick and Randy Flament at the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch

Tom Dick and Randy Flament scan the sky for raptors

During lulls in raptor-watching, we admired the lovely panorama of fields and forests below. At 2,850 feet, the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch is the highest hawk watch in the state and looms 800 feet above the valley. Located in Bedford County on Shaffer Mountain near the Somerset County line, the property is owned by both Tom Dick and his wife Sally who generously open it to the public during spring and fall migrations.

Members of the Allegheny Plateau Audubon Society, centered in Johnstown, help to maintain the site and have been monitoring the fall migration from late August through November since 1989. On a clear day, such as we experienced, we could see as far north as Blue Knob, the second highest mountain in Pennsylvania, and as far south as the I-70 corridor. With my binoculars, I could watch for osprey over Shawnee Lake and spot the Dunning Creek Wetlands near Pleasantville in Bedford County.

The Dunning Creek Wetlands, a 170-acre nature sanctuary also owned by the Dicks, was created from a failed farm in cooperation with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Wildlife program (now renamed Partners for Fish and Wildlife). Originally ditched and drained to raise crops, the farmland was often too wet to harvest and was abandoned in the late 1970s. By restoring the wetlands back in 1991, they attracted shorebirds and waterfowl in impressive numbers.  Once Tom Dick spotted tundra swans at the wetland from the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch and made a fast exit down the winding mountain road and back up the valley to the wetlands for a closer look.

Decoy for attracting saw-whet owls at night

Decoy for attracting saw-whet owls at night

Raptors aren’t the only migrating species that are counted at the hawk watch. Volunteers also count monarch butterflies and dragonflies and note the many songbirds they see there, both migrants and residents. A tent on the grassy field provides shelter for those banding migrating northern saw-whet owls. The evening before, Dave Darney had banded 20 of the little owls as well as one eastern screech-owl.

“The mountain is a major migratory corridor for saw-whets,” Tom Dick told us.

It also has the second highest count of spring migrating raptors after Tussey Mountain, which is the second most western ridge in the ridge-and-valley province and the mountain I see from the top of our First Field. From March until May volunteers also count raptors at the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch.

But in spring, some brave volunteers do more than monitor the raptor migration. They tie nylon ropes around their waists and are lowered down the steep mountainside to cut the brush and saplings for better viewing. Other volunteers keep the grass cut on top during workdays.

A weather station records wind direction and speed, all of which is carefully noted during hourly reports online to the Hawk Count site, maintained by the Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA), reports they’ve been sending in since 2002.

Visitors on a typical day at the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch

Visitors on a typical day at the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch

But the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch and the raptors they are counting, including the golden eagles, are threatened by the proposed industrial wind farm on Shaffer Mountain — ten turbines north 2.5 miles away and 20 turbines northwest 2.2 miles away. Miller and Lanzone’s golden eagle live-trapping site would be a mere 1.1 miles south of the nearest turbine.

These whirling turbines will be 400 feet high and threaten not only the raptors, but also the many migrating bats that use this corridor, bats that are already gravely threatened with extirpation, due to the white nose syndrome which is wiping out whole colonies throughout the eastern United States. The mountain has been designated a Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Area of Exceptional Significance because it has two of the highest-quality trout streams in the East, an endangered Indiana bat colony, and 11,000 acres of forest with only two dirt roads.

wind tubines on the Allegheny Front near Blue Knob, northeast of Shaffer Mountain

Wind tubines on the Allegheny Front near Blue Knob, northeast of Shaffer Mountain

More than 3,000 people have signed a petition opposing this particular site, and most wonder why a huge former strip mine, two miles from the proposed project, can’t be substituted for it, especially since the same company that proposes to level a pristine area of Shaffer Mountain owns the land. They reason that more than 100 wind turbines have been constructed on the same kinds of strip mines.  Why despoil an area with exceptional value streams, endangered bats, and the major flyway for migratory birds and bats.

Sadly, the wind companies aren’t waiting for the results of Trish Miller’s study of the effects of wind turbines on golden eagles — those turbines made of reinforced Fiberglass, weighing 3,000 pounds or more, and rotating as fast as 200 miles per hour at their tips. Even though wind companies claim that bird deaths are minimal, a turbine site at Altamont Pass in California kills on average 75 golden eagles a year.  Since our eastern golden eagle population is much smaller than the western one, such losses would soon wipe out what Miller estimates is a migratory population of 1,000 to 2,000 eagles.

Must we destroy the planet in order to save it?

Must we destroy the planet in order to save it?

Of course, the golden eagle is one of many raptor species that will be impacted by those spinning blades. And already there is an industrial wind farm on Blue Knob. Another one is slated, also on the Allegheny Front, above Tyrone, and directly across the valley from our home, even though Trish Miller has already discovered that golden eagles like to pause and feed on the Tyrone watershed site during migration.

So little is known about this species in the East that she and her husband, Mike Lanzone, are making new discoveries every year about the migration patterns of these birds that breed in northern Quebec and Labrador and migrate south for the winter to eastern Kentucky and southwestern West Virginia as well as to southern Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, by the time her study is completed, golden eagles and other raptors will have many more wind turbine blades to avoid.

Knowing all this, I found it difficult to believe that the industrial wind farm would be built on Shaffer Mountain. As Jack Buchan of Johnstown, a Shaffer Mountain landowner and member of Sensible Wind Solutions wrote in a letter to the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, “If [the wind company] is permitted to build there — to degrade exceptional value streams and kill endangered animals — no place will be off-limits to the wind industry in Pennsylvania.”

Visit ShafferMountain.com for more on this ill-advised project, and to learn how you can help stop it and save the golden eagles. If you’re on Facebook, join the Save Shaffer Mountain group.

The second and the last two photos are by Dave Bonta; all others are by Bruce Bonta.

Golden Eagle Redux

After release, the golden eagle landed briefly in a white pine

After release, the golden eagle landed briefly in a white pine before resuming its journey south (photo by Dave Bonta)

In case you’ve been wondering about the photo of me in the sidebar, here’s the story, from my November column in Pennsylvania Game News.

The phone rang just as we were in the midst of eating dinner.

“I’ll bet that’s Trish and she’s got an eagle,” I said.

Bruce answered the phone.

“You’ve got an eagle,” he repeated.  “You’ve got a problem. What is it?  Steve and Dave are here too.  I’ll send them both up.”

So began an adventure that had eluded us the previous autumn (see Golden Eagle Days, Part 1 and Part 2).

It was the last day of daylight saving time, and at 6:15, the sun had already set.  Trish Miller, a golden eagle researcher working on her Ph.D. at Penn State, had arrived at the new trapping site on our mountain in the morning.  Luckily, she had come by herself, because I had often encountered her with her little daughter Phoebe on her back heading to the site.

Unlike the previous year’s site, this one was a steep climb up Sapsucker Ridge and then a precarious climb down into the middle of a rock slide where her husband, Mike Lanzone, assisted by interns from the Powdermill Nature Reserve, had designed and built a blind and live trap.

During their first trapping season here, they had discovered that the golden eagles, after crossing the Tyrone Gap in Bald Eagle Mountain, would drop below the ridge on the northwestern side and not soar above it until they reached the top of First Field.  On the rock slide, the eagles often flew past at eye level.

Golden eagle talons

Golden eagles are capable of taking very large prey. Dr. Katzner shows us why (D. Bonta)

The day she called us, the northwest wind had picked up at noon, and Miller had watched nine golden eagles fly over.  Every eagle was escorted through his territory by the resident red-tailed hawk, which picked them up on the far side of the gap, near a cell phone tower, and accompanied them on along the ridge.

Then the tenth golden eagle struck the bait.  One of the lines to the bait broke, and the eagle hung on to it while flapping half off the trapping platform.  Afraid to spring the bow net, Miller waited, hoping the eagle would flap back on to the platform. When it did, she sprang the net and had a perfect catch.  She managed to get the eagle into a large carrying case she had brought along, but she couldn’t haul it up the rock slide and down the trail to our place, a good half-mile away, before dark.  That’s where our sons came in.

Bruce and I waited and waited.  It grew dark and still we waited.  Finally, in they came, our two sons and Miller, bearing the eagle in the carrying case.  After giving us a chance to look in and see the magnificent bird, they carried the case down to our cellar and covered it with a sheet for the night to keep the bird calm.

Trish Miller with the golden eagle

Phoebe seemed especially entranced by the big eagle (D. Bonta)

The following morning researchers and bystanders began assembling to work and watch by 8:00 a.m.  It was a cold, damp and overcast 37-degree Sunday morning.  Dr. Todd Katzner, Director of Conservation and Field Research at The National Aviary, arrived from Pittsburgh first.  The Scott family, who had been packing up from a day of hunting when they brought the eagle down off the ridge, was also here, as well as our sons.

Before the other researchers arrived, Katzner carried the case into our shed.  He carefully opened it and climbed halfway inside the case to grab the feet of the eagle and pull it out.

“I think this a first year female,” he said and gave us a lesson on golden eagle biology.  He spread her tail to show the white on it and her more than five-foot wingspan to display the white underneath.  Both were signs of her age.  But her massive golden head was already its golden adult color.  Although her beak looked dangerous, it was her taloned feet that were.  She had been hatched sometime last April or May in northern Quebec or Labrador, he thought.

Miller, Lanzone, their children Jeffrey, Ashley and Phoebe arrived at 8:30, followed by Dan Ombalski, another researcher, from State College.

Todd Katzner and Trish Miller measure the eagle's beak, while Mike Lanzone works on the transmitter

Todd Katzner and Trish Miller take measurements (Bruce Bonta)

Once everyone was assembled on our veranda, the work began.  They put a cap over the eagle’s head so she wouldn’t be too stressed, although Katzner told us that her cortisone level was high.

They measured her wings and tail and brought out a chart to check sizes against what would determine the sex of the bird.  Her legs were thick; her bright yellow talons huge.  “Fresh, happy feet,” Miller called them.

She weighed 41.20 grams or 8.4 pounds, which definitely made her the bigger, heavier female–the first female eastern golden eagle ever radio tagged.

It took hours to fit the harness and radio transmitter over her abundant feathers and impressive breast, and they shook her several times so she would flap wildly.  Then they would once again adjust the harness.  They sewed a section on with thread so that the transmitter would fall off in a year or two.  All of this was part of a new kind of transmitter, and Lanzone had been up all night tweaking it, perfectionist that he is.  Instead of transmitting data once an hour, as the other transmitters did the previous year, this one was made to transmit every thirty seconds.

Finally, all the actors were ready. That was when the researchers decided that the eagle would be released on the rock slide where she had been trapped, so she would resume her migration with as little disruption as possible.

Mike Lanzone and Trish Miller make adjustments to the transmitter, with assistance from Steve Bonta

Mike and Trish make adjustments to the transmitter, with assistance from Steve (B. Bonta)

All of us hiked to the site except for Katzner who drove The National Aviary truck that held the golden eagle in the carrying case.  By then three Powdermill interns had joined us as well.  What a crowd to usher off an eagle.

I picked my way down the rock slide to the first open area where they planned the release.  Everyone had cameras and surrounded the eagle and Lanzone who was holding her.

At that moment, Miller came over to me and said that they would like me to release her.  It had never crossed my mind that they would honor me in such a way.  Looking at her talons, I gulped and agreed.  How could I turn down a chance to hold this incredible bird?

Miller showed me how to grasp her feet and then carefully transferred the eagle to me.  Her eight pounds seemed light despite her massive size.

I held her for what seemed many photos and videos.

“Just throw her lightly into the air,” they told me.  When I yelled “Ready,” Katzner responded “Go!” And just as we had rehearsed — off she flew.  I felt as if I was releasing air.

But instead of streaking away, she flew into a nearby pine tree.  Our son Dave and Lanzone ran through the underbrush to take more photos and watch her as she ruffled and smoothed her feathers, grooming off the feel of humans who had insulted her dignity.  Once she reached behind her back and pulled repeatedly at the transmitter. There were a few tense moments until she gave up trying to remove it and went back to grooming.

Then she rose into the air again, and instead of continuing down the ridge, she returned to circle above us twice, as if in farewell, before she headed south to our collective applause. We wished her a safe trip and hoped all would go well with the transmitter so we could watch “our” eagle’s journey.

But months dragged on and we didn’t hear anything.  I finally contacted the researchers and learned from Katzner that “the prototype transmitter had worked very well and provided initial data for a few days before it failed” and they had lost track of her.  What a disappointment!

Hands on golden eagle

Everybody wanted to touch this talisman of wilderness (D. Bonta)

But Miller told me that they had learned more, during that short time, about how she used the ridge during her flight, than they had from the other eagles they had tagged with transmitters the previous year.  Because their research project goal is, in Katzner’s words, “to provide informed science and generate key information so that raptor friendly wind farms can be built in Pennsylvania,” they must know how high eagles fly above the ridges.

Nothing in the evolutionary history of birds or bats has prepared them for industrial-sized wind mills, what some folks call “eggbeaters in the sky.”  Each 150 foot blade, 300 feet in diameter, weighs 9 tons and the blade tips move 200 feet per second, Katzner says.

The researchers also must identify primary migrating routes and wintering sites and identify the eagles’ behavior on migration and during the winter.  Eventually they plan to produce maps that show the relative risk to the birds from the development of industrial wind farms.

All of this scientific information was impressive, but we couldn’t help wondering about our own golden eagle.  What had happened to her?  Where had she gone?

Then, on Valentine’s Day, we received an e-mail from Lanzone.

“Got a call today from someone helping with a PGC study about an eagle that looked like the one in the Game News.  Turns out it was the golden eagle you released.  It looks very healthy from the pictures and has been visiting the deer [dump] for just over two weeks (they had thought it was a bald eagle until the other day)…it is visiting their study area on private land just north of Greensburg in Westmoreland County about 25 miles from my office.”

They hoped to re-trap her and put on a new transmitter, but she was having none of that.  Once trapped, twice shy. But what a relief it was to learn that she was fine and that she hadn’t even left Pennsylvania.  And she wasn’t the only golden eagle to winter in our state.  At other deer dumps in other parts of the state stationary cameras captured photos of golden eagles feeding on deer carcasses.

Todd Katzner showing underwing of golden eagle

The white on the underside of the wings is one of the things that distinguishes a juvenile golden eagle from an adult (D. Bonta)

There is much more to learn about eastern golden eagles.  Katzner estimates that from 1000 to 1500 golden eagles pass through Pennsylvania during migration, which is 90 to 95% of the population.  So far, it seems as if in the autumn most pre-adults migrate through eastern Pennsylvania along Hawk Mountain (the easternmost ridge in the ridge-and-valley province) and adults through western Pennsylvania, primarily along the Allegheny Front and our own Bald Eagle Ridge, the westernmost ridge in the ridge-and-valley province.  Southern West Virginia appears to provide key wintering habitat.

In spring, adults migrate mostly from the Allegheny Front to about 60 miles east, although Tussey Mountain, the next ridge to the east of Bald Eagle, seems to be the major ridge.  There is also evidence that some pre-adults stay in Virginia for the summer.

With the help of Quebec collaborators, they now have radio transmitters on 15 eastern golden eagles.  Using GPS satellite telemetry, which is solar powered and should last one to three years, GPS data points at regular intervals are transmitted to a server by satellite. And those points should give them all the information they need about the eastern golden eagles’ flight speed, elevation, and timing during migration.

As Miller continues her “Wind Power and Eagle Migration” Ph.D. work, we hope she traps and radio tags many more golden eagles on our mountaintop and on the Allegheny Front so we can learn more about the life history of this distinct, poorly-known, small population of eastern golden eagles.

golden eagle seconds after release, with the Allegheny Front in the distance

The eagle seconds after release, with the Allegheny Front in the distance (B. Bonta)

Golden Eagle Days (Part 2)

Continued from November.

golden-eagle-portrait
photo by Todd Katzner

Then came the great change. After a mild, misty start on December first, the thermometer hit 65 degrees and then began to plummet as the wind picked up. The northwest winds had finally arrived a month late and with it, the following morning, came the eagle researchers. They had a third radio-tag and they meant to use it.

By 10:10 a.m., when I arrived in the blind, they had already counted 12 golden eagles. Behind me in the blind they had a red-tailed hawk in a can. On this bright, cold, windy day they expected visitors from Powdermill Nature Reserve, and they planned a banding demonstration of a red-tail in case they didn’t trap an eagle. That red-tail, Lanzone told me, was “one of the smallest I ever saw.” And then number 13 golden eagle flew past.

After that, there was a lull, but at 10:45 number 14 appeared. Lanzone played the bait even after the eagle flew out of sight.

“They could come in from behind the spruce grove,” Lanzone explained.

The guests arrived, including the head of the Powdermill Nature Reserve, Dave Smith, and a local board member, John Dawes. Other employees from both The National Aviary and Powdermill also watched. The blind was jam packed with eager spectators, and the pressure was on.

But no eagle appeared. Finally, Lanzone weighed, measured and banded the little red-tail on its right leg. That red-tail may have been little but it was mighty and bit Lanzone on the finger, unlike the previous one they had banded.

“All of them have different personalities, like people,” Lanzone said.

In the midst of that, number 15 golden eagle flew past. As numbers 17 and 18 flew over without coming down to the bait, Todd Katzner delivered a mini-lecture on eastern golden eagles. Because easterns are smaller than westerns, it’s a “reasonable probability that it’s a subspecies,” he explained, “even though no work has been done to establish it.”

He also said that in addition to possibly killing golden eagles, wind mills on the mountaintops might deflect the eagles off good lift areas along the ridges.

Then three more golden eagles diverted our attention as they flew up from behind the ridge, and by 12:10 we had counted 21.

“Come on, eagles,” Lanzone muttered under his breath when numbers 22 and 23 appeared with a red-tail on their right. Then they dropped below the tree line again.

Mike Lanzone with golden eagle trap
Mike Lanzone with the bow net (photo: Todd Katzner)

The visitors grew hungry as lunch time came and went. Then another red-tail flew straight from the ridge to the bait. Lanzone sprang the net and made a perfect catch. As they were taking photos of the hawk out in the field with the visitors looking on, an adult golden eagle flew over, giving all of us a perfect view.After weighing, measuring, and banding that hawk, the visitors helped to release it. It hadn’t been the golden eagle we had been hoping for, but no one could deny the excitement of watching the beautiful red-tail take the bait.

The visitors headed back down for their belated lunches, but I remained watching with the researchers. (I had already learned to carry lots of snack food and water.) Altogether, we counted 29 golden eagles. Then the flight was over at 2:30 p.m. even though we continued to peer intently through the blind windows for another hour. All we saw were two flocks of tundra swans.

On December 4 it was 19 degrees and windy. By the time I reached the blind, shortly after 9:00 a.m., 11 golden eagles had already flown past. Number 10 had almost come in, Lanzone told me.

Snow flurries seemed to slow down the flight, although numbers 12 and 13 flew past. Again lunchtime came and went and then, at 2:12 p.m. Lanzone lowered the flaps and whispered, “She’s coming. Nobody move.”

An enormous adult female golden eagle came down on the bait 25 feet from the blind. We had an eye-filling look at this fierce creature as Lanzone sprang the bow net. It snagged on a broken stem of goldenrod. The eagle hesitated and then took off fast. Lanzone was furious. After two immature males, they were eager to catch a mature female.

To add insult to injury, while they were re-setting the trap, two more golden eagles flew past. Then two more, traveling as a pair, also sailed over. Lanzone told me that golden eagles will rarely stoop to bait when they are together.

They spotted another single, number 19. The flaps went down again and tension was high in the blind, but that one too ignored the bait.

We did catch another red-tail. This one came over the ridge. I released it after it was weighed, measured, and banded. Or I tried to release it, holding it firmly by its feet and laying it on its back, as Lanzone instructed, but it refused to turn over and fly off as it was supposed to. It still thought it was caught. Finally, it stood up and spread its wings, posing for photos for several minutes, before Lanzone came out of the blind and helped it to realize that it could fly off.

And that was it for the day. But when Lanzone later checked a hawk count site on the web, he learned that with our 19 goldens we had had, by far, the most goldens in the state both that day and on December 2 with 29.

The following day two goldens passed by 10:00 a.m. It was 22 degrees and snow flurries often obscured Bald Eagle Ridge. Lanzone, Miller, and baby Phoebe were in the blind, and after three fruitless hours of watching, Lanzone asked if I could show him the big talus slope down the ridge where our son Steve had often observed raptors.

Tired of sitting in the blind, I said, “Sure,” and off we went to see if any golden eagles were flying past there.

After a mile, we reached the talus slope, which spreads halfway down the ridge. I picked my way down over the rocks for a short ways and then waited as Lanzone looked over the entire talus slope. He returned after nearly an hour very excited. He was almost certain that the golden eagles would be flying at eye level along this side of the ridge. If only he could get a blind and trap set up there. But where? And how? We walked back along the old, rock-choked, logging road and down the steep Steiner/Scott Trail as he tried to figure out if it would be possible to get a four wheel drive vehicle with supplies within a reasonable distance of the talus slope.After a still, warm day, December 7 dawned cold and overcast with snow squalls and a northwest wind. Lanzone had emailed me late the previous night to say that he and Miller would be here, but he planned to return to the talus slope.

Miller arrived after 10:00 a.m. with Phoebe and told me a story that I could scarcely believe. Lanzone and Lewis Grove, who worked at Powdermill also, had arrived before dawn in a four wheel drive, which they had driven up the Steiner/Scott Trail and down the rocky logging road. Then, making 18 trips in the dark with headlamps on up and down the treacherous, ice and snow-covered rocks, they had set up both a blind and bait. Already they had seen an eagle.

talus slope eagle blind
The talus slope blind in October 2007 (photo: Dave Bonta)

As Miller was setting up, they called on her cell phone to say that three more golden eagles had come by. A few minutes later I looked up and there they were above the ridge.

Then the snow flurried hard and a snow fog developed, which nearly hid the ridges. But shortly after 1:00 p.m., while it was still snowing, Miller spotted a male Cooper’s hawk sitting in a nearby tree. In the hawk came to the bait. It was thoroughly tangled in the bow net, and she patiently untangled it. She put a band on it, and I released it. Unlike the red-tail, the Cooper’s hawk exploded into the air.

In the meantime, Lanzone and Grove counted nine golden eagles before the flurries turned to squalls. By evening, two inches of snow had fallen. That evening Miller, Lanzone, and Phoebe spent the night in our guesthouse.

Still another windy day, 14 degrees and clear. Miller, Phoebe and I occupied the spruce grove blind and Lanzone the talus slope blind. But he missed three golden eagles because the bait had spooked the eagles.

Later, I heard from Lanzone that still another golden eagle had flown in low to look over the situation. That one had landed on a rock next to the bait and bow trap. The eagle had studied it some more, and had finally flown off.

talus-slope-trapping-area.jpg
The trapping spot on the talus slope in October 2007 (photo: Dave Bonta)

With that, the golden eagle saga here ended for the year. Comparing notes with Miller, Lanzone discovered that he saw many more golden eagles at the talus slope than Miller did in the blind. A large number stay below the ridgetop and even those that do pop up are flying too fast to stop for a look, except for the female that got away.

And the researchers did get the chance to use that third radio-tag. On January 5 wildlife officials in West Virginia contacted them about an immature male golden eagle that had been caught in a leghold trap for several days. The National Aviary’s Director of Veterinary Services and Animal Programs, Dr. Pilar Fish, said that “both sides of his leg were cut down to the bone from the trap, and the bone was crushed on one side, though not broken completely…He was dehydrated, stressed and infection had set in.” But after three months of expert rehabilitation, the bird was healthy enough to release, on March 22, where they had found him near Scherr, West Virginia.

In the meantime, I followed the other two eagles’ progress on The National Aviary’s website. The Thanksgiving eagle (called eagle 39) spent his winter mostly in southeastern West Virginia and the other eagle tagged on the Allegheny Front (eagle 40) wandered between southeastern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. In March both migrated back through our area on their way to northern Quebec above tree line. Eagle 39 stayed above the western bulge of Labrador in Quebec and Eagle 40 at the edge of Ungava Bay. Both are probably defending territory, according to Katzner, because they have been staying put.

Eagle 41, the rehabbed bird, remained near his release site until May 10, and then he headed for Canada like the other two. He too ended up at the edge of Ungava Bay.

“It takes an eagle about five years to reach maturity and nobody is really sure what happens to eastern golden eagles in the time between when they are hatched and when they begin the breeding phase of their life,” Katzner said.

With the radio-tagging of three immature males, they’re beginning to find out. We will continue to follow the paths of eagles 39, 40, and 41 on The National Aviary website, and we’ll hope that this year one of the radio-tagged golden eagles will be caught on our talus slope.

golden eagle release
Mike releases one of the two eagles radio-tagged at the Allegheny Front Hawkwatch in November 2006 (photo: Todd Katzner)

__________

The Pennsylvania Game Commission has partnered with the National Aviary and the Powdermill Nature Reserve, which is the field station of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, on the golden eagle study. They have given a $25,000 State Wildlife Grant that will add to the substantial funding by the National Aviary and the Carnegie Museum. Other researchers who are assisting in the study, officially titled, “Assessing Conservation Needs of Eastern Golden Eagles in Pennsylvania” are David Brandes of Lafayette College and Dan Ombalski of the Tussey Mountain Hawkwatch. A white paper recently released by the five researchers, Raptors and Wind Energy Development in the Central Appalachians: Where We Stand [PDF], says that “because of their demography, migration, and winter flight behavior, and high vulnerability to wind turbines, we consider Eastern Golden Eagles to be the eastern U.S. species at highest risk of population-scale impacts from wind energy development.”