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