Golden Eagle Days (Part 2)

Continued from November.

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.

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.”


5 responses to “Golden Eagle Days (Part 2)”

  1. Frank Windfelder Avatar


    I am the Program Director for the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club, located in Philadelphia.

    The banding of Golden Eagles on your property is surely fascinating, especially when you factor in collecting data to aid in the correct placement of wind farms to protect the birds.

    Would you be willing to speak to DVOC about this in 2009?

    Frank Windfelder
    Vice-President, DVOC

  2. Golden Eagle Redux « Marcia Bonta Avatar

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

  3. Allegheny Front Hawk Watch « Marcia Bonta Avatar

    […] (See my three earlier columns on the golden eagle trapping project: Golden Eagle Days (Part 1), Golden Eagle Days (Part 2), and Golden Eagle […]

  4. mari Avatar

    great work. i did a movie on banding and satelite birds, about i5 years ago. it was not an easy gig to get, as no one would reveal how the birds are actually caught. i managed to talk one of the drs. to keep putting in a good word or me, and now they use one of my videos, as a ‘how fast things can go terrible wrong’ even hooded , the dr. got the sutures, instead of the bird..they couldn’t believe i kept the camera rolling during the whole thing[ me either
    I plan to keep reading your post’s and hope to visit your area in the near future..

  5. Marcia Bonta Avatar

    Check my piece “Golden Eagle Redux,” in which Trish actually catches a golden eagle on our talus slope. If you hold the bird correctly, there is no danger in getting hooked. I even released that one.

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