The soaring bird was huge. Was it an eagle with a smaller head than a bald eagle? I was pretty sure it wasn’t a juvenile bald eagle. And then, finally, I thought I had figured it out. It was our lesser known golden eagle. The golden has very long rounded wings and golden neck feathers that are only seen at very close range. Almost, but not completely confident in my identification, I checked with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (of which I am a supporter) for confirmation. I was right. It was a golden eagle, a relative rarity that does not nest in the eastern U.S., but transits from Canada through our area over the winter, then returns to Canada for mating and nesting in very early spring. My first sighting was a few years ago and it inspired my interest in this very majestic raptor. I followed up by visiting the Franklin Mountain Hawk Watch, which is manned by trained volunteers from the Delaware/Otsego chapter of the National Audubon Society. They monitor raptor species including the golden eagle as they migrate south for the winter. The monitoring takes place starting late summer and runs through December each year.
Franklin Mountain, which is just south of Oneonta, is an apparent funnel point for many of these birds as they transit south. I found also that the chapter is heavily involved in a research project coordinated with the federal government and our local State Department of Environmental Conservation. Their goal is to locate the main migratory paths of the golden eagle which is federally listed as an endangered species. The project involves capturing,
monitoring, sexing and finally fitting the eagles with very expensive ($2,500) transponders that constantly relay their location through satellite imagery. The final goal of all this is to map the routes and hang-out locations of the eagles so that, hopefully, energy turbines and other towers will not be placed in their flight paths. It has been reported that many of the golden eagles that do mate and nest in the western states have been struck and killed by the turbines. If this project is successful and used by industry when locating the turbines, we can help avoid the tragedy occurring now in the west.
One of the first projects that occurred locally was right here in the hamlet of Andes on private land and was successful in capturing one golden that was named Maxine. But sadly, she was lost, most likely due to lead poisoning. Now, how could this happen? Well, it turns out that the DEC had corralled and shot a number of feral swine further north, where Maxine had headed. A bald eagle was found in the kill area that had been feeding on the lead-shot swine, was now suffering from lead poisoning and luckily was rehabilitated. Sadly, Maxine was never found. Another called Jean was successfully captured and tagged in Andes and another, called Greg, in Otsego County. These two were later sighted at other locations, but their transmitters had for some reason stopped working.
Last winter the project in Andes was shifted as the earlier site had been sold and the new ownership did not want deer carcasses placed on their land. My wife Nancy and I volunteered our uppermost field which was considered an excellent site, meeting all the parameters required by the researchers. Only road-killed deer that are inspected for signs of bullet holes are picked up and then carted to our site and another in Middletown. This onerous and many times odorous task is performed by a couple of local and tireless volunteers. The trek up from the road over the fields to the site required a pickup truck, then my tractor, and finally, as the snow depth reached more than two feet, a snowmobile. The workload, which also included many trips around the county to pick up the road-kills, was very high but did not deter these intrepid volunteers.
The site had been set up with a box that would contain a spring-loaded net that could be fired off from a blind that would, when the time was considered right, be occupied by one or two observers and a DEC biologist at the ready, to remotely pull the net trigger when, and if, a golden eagle was feasting on the pile. There also was a motion sensitive trailcam set close, taking pictures which operated day and night. The plan was to occupy the blind only when the cam showed that a golden was fairly consistently visiting the site. To our dismay each time the crew was ensconced in the blind, and to put it mildly freezing their butts off, the sought-after golden never showed.
Although the main goal of capture and release of a golden eagle was not reached this year, Nancy and I and the others involved had the joy of reveling in the incredible close-up shots taken by the trail cam: bald eagles, both mature and juvenile, feasting together with multiples of crows and ravens vying for whatever scrap they could safely escape with; wary coyotes occasionally moving in in broad daylight; the rare fisher always at night, and bobcats, sometimes two at a time. I thought it a real phenomenon when a bobcat and a coyote were opposite each other feeding, but at the same time keeping very wary eyes on each other. Even a flock of turkeys paraded by as a coyote did a little daylight feeding. We all thought it crazy and wished the best of luck to an incredibly fortunate cottontail that sauntered by after midnight, no carnivore in sight.
So as not to disrupt and spook the birds, venison deliveries to the site were normally made in early morning or in the evening when avian activity had not commenced or had ended for the day. One day in mid-February a delivery was late, about 10 am. It was a windless, 15 degree day with a cloudless, crystal blue sky. I was wandering in two feet of snow in a field next to our house, when I looked up to see what was one of the most incredible sights I had ever seen. The feeding birds had been disturbed and all had lifted into the sky. And there I was watching as six mature eagles and seven or eight juveniles and at least twenty five crows and ravens were gently lofting on what must have been a rising thermal. All slowly and without a wing beat or apparent effort, in a synchronous loft, went higher and higher in that crystal blue sky, all this beauty right over my home. It was, I must say a very spiritual experience for this agnostic soul.
One of the great joys of nature writing is that your observations and special moments aren’t lost forever.~