Ghost Bird

leucistic redtail 1“What is it?” the e-mail asked.

Attached to it were four photos from a trail cam our caretakers, Paula and Troy Scott, had set up behind the spruce grove. The photos showed a large white raptor feeding on top of a carcass the Scotts had secured to lure in wintering golden eagles for an ongoing region-wide study.

Stuck inside most of last winter with a deep muscle tear in my left calf, I eagerly awaited photos of the many wild creatures that visited their three trail cams. But this bird was a real puzzle.

The raptor’s back and head were white except for the tips of a couple black primary wing feathers, a small black patch on top of its head and another on its neck. Its breast, belly, and tail coverts were pure white and so were the feathers on its legs. Then I looked at the tail, which was mostly white with a couple bands of red. The mystery bird was a red-tailed hawk.

Like most people who see a white red-tail, I thought I was seeing a rarity. But according to William S. Clark and Brian K. Wheeler, authors of Hawks of North America, a Peterson Field Guide, “Partial albinos, varying from almost all white birds to some with just a few white feathers, are fairly common and are reported from almost all areas. Most birds are from half white to mostly white.”

Our bird was mostly white and did not have a dark area on its nape as most do. In addition, our bird had dark eyes and an orange beak and talons.

leucistic redtail 2I expected to find more information about white red-tails in my many books on birds, but even The Birds of North Americas definitive account of red-tailed hawks failed to mention this phenomenon.

I was more successful when I Googled “albinism in birds and animals” and “partial albinism in red-tailed hawks.” The former convinced me that terms for white creatures varied, although pure albinism in birds is caused by a genetic mutation that interferes with the production of the melanin or dark pigment that determines the black color of birds’ feathers.

One source declared that partial albinism is now called “leucism” and that the term comes from the Latin “leuk” or Greek “leukos” meaning “white.” But another source, which I found easier to understand, had a chart that differentiated between three types of albinism.

A true albino is white or pink all over with pink eyes and has little or no ability to produce colors. Those are indeed rare among mammals and birds. For instance, Henry Kendall, a master falconer in St. Louis, has reported 600 sightings of oddly-colored red-tails throughout North America in ten years. Of those, only one was a pure white albino with pink eyes.

Those eyes are pink because red blood cells in the retinal blood vessels beneath are not hidden by pigment. For this reason albino birds and animals often go blind since they don’t have pigments in their eyes to protect them from sunlight.

A leucistic creature is white or pink all over, its eyes are usually blue, and it has little ability to produce color. Another source says a leucistic animal is not pure white, its pigmentation is diluted, and its plumage is lighter than usual but not pure white. David Bird, an ornithologist, recently defined leucism as “a partial loss of melanin pigments” in Bird Watcher’s Digest. That simple definition suited me.

leucistic redtail 3A partial albino, also called a partial leucistic by some experts, has small portions or patches of white, its eyes are a normal color, and it has the ability to produce most normal colors. Some sources call this the piebald effect.

By then, I was thoroughly confused. Our bird had more than small patches of white. So too did the red-tails folks reported on Eddie B. Horvath’s blog devoted to white red-tail sightings throughout North America. I scanned the dozens of reports and found several from Pennsylvania. One, from near Quakertown was “absolutely pure white.” Another from Lake Wallenpaupack was “100% white.” A third, on Route 706, 10 miles from Montrose, was “completely white.” Most recently one was sighted at the Flight 93 memorial site on March 12, 2012 and again on August 13, 2012.

Seeing the same bird twice in one area is fairly rare. We and the Scotts saw our bird only on the trail cam once, last Valentine’s Day, and never in the air. Years ago I observed a white woodchuck for several minutes at the Far Field thicket and never again. And once my son, Steve, and I spotted a white deer in our forest as we were driving down our road. It too disappeared.

These white animals lack protective camouflage and are easy for predators to spot. White deer and white bears are also prized by hunters, and one website reported a small white black bear in Pennsylvania was legally killed by a hunter from Spring Mills back in 2006.

But raptors are protected by the National Migratory Bird Act, and when a white red-tail, which had lived in south Texas for several years, was shot and left on a two-lane road, residents were angry and posted a $1000 reward for any information about the perpetrator. A local scientist was quoted as saying that “the average citizen loves white red-tails.”

leucistic redtail 4Writing for the Times Union in Albany, New York several years ago, Richard Guthrie reported the presence of at least six white red-tails with dark eyes in the area. All were females and all were paired with normal-colored red-tail males and were nesting.

Despite all these tales of white red-tails, researchers reported years ago that the most common albino or partial albino wild bird species is the American robin. A whopping 8.22% of all such birds were robins, but other researchers hypothesized that it could be because robins are commonly seen and often live in our yards.

Another reason for the high number of white robins may be because they don’t migrate far. Melanin pigments make feathers that are strong and last longer and the lack of such pigments in albino or partial albinos weaken birds, especially those that migrate long distances.

Lost in the world of white creatures on the Internet, I also learned that New York State has the largest white deer herd in the world. Back in 1941 in Seneca County, 10,600 acres were fenced to enclose the Seneca Army Depot, isolating a small herd of white-tailed deer, some of which had white coats. In the 1950s, although hunting was allowed in the Depot, the commander declared that hunters were forbidden to shoot white deer. Today, even though the army is cleaning up the site and moving out, of the 700 deer inside the fence, 300 are white. There are folks up there hoping to save the herd and they mention a prophesy supposedly made by the Lenape, who said that “It has long been predicted that there would come a time when a white male and female deer would be seen together and that this would be a sign to the people to come together.” I presume they mean that if enough like-minded people come together, the white deer herd will be saved for the many people who are interested in seeing them.

leucistic redtail 5Some Native Americans called white deer “ghost deer,” and I think of our white red-tail as a “ghost bird,” because we only saw it once and only on photographs. Artist and writer Julie Zickefoose was luckier. She spotted a pure albino red-tail during a drive from her rural Ohio home to Columbus on October 11, 2012. She posted several photos of it on her blog and described it as “something searingly beautiful, transformative, a vision, a bolt from the blue,” a description, I think, that those who have seen such birds would agree with.


Game cam photos courtesy of Paula Scott.

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!