Golden eagle returns to Big Bend

12 Mar

A recent spotting of a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) on the Terlingua Ranch is exciting. Although some sources claim that this bird was all but exterminated decades ago from most of Texas, including the Big Bend area, many sightings over the last several years confirm that the Golden eagle is making a comeback.

Both the Golden and Bald eagles are our largest birds of prey, but Golden eagles are larger than the latter in average height and wingspan. The length of an adult Golden eagle is about 3 feet, its wingspan up to 7.5 feet, and can weigh up to 15 pounds.  Adults are dark brown with tawny or golden color on the back of the head and neck. The tail of an adult Golden is faintly banded with white, but the juveniles have wide white patches at the base of the primaries.

Both the adult and juvenile Golden eagles may be confused with juvenile Bald eagles because they are dark and lack the tell-tale white neck feathers of the adult Bald Eagle. One way to distinguish a Golden eagle from an immature Bald eagle is leg plumage. A Golden eagle’s legs are entirely feather covered, whereas an immature Bald eagle’s lower legs are bare. As seen in flight, juvenile Golden eagles have white patches at the base of the primary tail feathers with a distinct dark terminal band. It takes four years to acquire adult plumage. In flight, the Bald eagle has a longer neck but shorter tail than the Golden. The latter also flies with the wings held in a slight upturned ‘V’ pattern, whereas the Bald eagle’s wings are held straight.

Golden eagle in flight. Note the upturned wing tips.

Golden eagle in flight. Note the upturned wing tips.

Resident populations of the Golden eagle are found from the Arctic to Central Mexico. These eagles are year-round residents in west Texas and breed from early February to November. Migratory Golden eagles breed in Alaska and across Canada, but also winter in the resident area. Winter visitors are present in Texas from early October to mid-March.

Although the resident territory of the Golden eagle is more widespread than the Bald eagle, they are less commonly seen. One reason is that they are more solitary than the latter eagles and their hunting territory may extend up to 160 square miles. Additionally, they are more dispersed throughout their ranges. Regardless, sightings of Golden eagles have been confirmed and documented in the northern areas of Big Bend (Marathon, Davis, Franklin and Guadalupe Mountains) and in the Panhandle area of Texas along the eastern escarpment of the Llano Estacado.

Golden eagles reach adulthood and mate at about four years of age, and often stay paired with the same mate for life.They prefer to nest on rocky crags or slicer cliff faces, often at high altitudes (over 2,500 feet), to provide a safe nesting site inaccessible to predators.. Females lay only one to three eggs a year and both parents share in feeding the young. Luckily, these eagles are long-lived; from 15-24 years.

Their diet consists primarily of rabbits, especially black-tailed jackrabbits, other hares, ground squirrels and prairie-dogs. However, they will also prey on larger mammals such as small fox and coyotes, cats, and birds, including grouse, crows. They also prey on snakes and may resort to eating carrion, such as road kill.

Documented and reliable predation on livestock is scarce. As one naturalist, Roy Bedichek, commented, “Ravages by any predator tend to be exaggerated. Miscellaneous observations quickly build up into top-heavy totals. When one predator a quires a reputation for prowess, the evil deeds of others are loaded upon him. The lamb dead at birth is torn by some vulture, and the ranchman who finds it chalks up anoether evil deed to the deadly eagle.” Livestock ranchers, especially with sheep, trapped shot or poisoned the eagles into the 1980’s. In the southern Big Bend area, an area game warden and a pilot killed 2,500 Golden eagles within a 12-year period before the Big Bend National Park was established.

The U.S. Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1962 outlawed harming Golden and Bald eagles, their eggs, and nests. Although this legislation remains in effect, the greatest threat now still stems from human impact. Eagles have died after eating poison targeting coyote control. Birds also succumb to lead poisoning from ammunition in hunter shot. Most recorded deaths are from collisions with vehicles, wind turbines, and other structures or from electrocution at power poles.

My first introduction to a Golden eagle was during a demonstration of falconry in Portland, Oregon. I sat on a blanket near the back of the crowd and near a perch on a post. At the falconer’s signal, an adult Golden flew from his gloved hand and to the perch next to me where I sat. I was enthralled watching this bird fly, almost in slow motion. It landed on the perch above my head and settled its wings, giving a short and curt cry. I looked up like a little child in amazement. And it cocked its head down to look at me with one eye. We stared at each other for what seemed like a very long time. In response to a shrill whistle, it opened its wings and lifted up to fly back to the stage.

I wanted to join it in flight.

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4 Responses to “Golden eagle returns to Big Bend”

  1. John Grimm March 12, 2014 at 7:44 pm #

    We have one down our way that I have seen along 170 three times. I’m guessing he has been eating road kill. Where is the picture you ask? One must have the camera to take the picture!

    • Macrobe March 12, 2014 at 8:28 pm #

      Well, then! Get that camera out there!

  2. Macrobe March 13, 2014 at 7:38 am #

    Eagle spotting updates: Since posting this to the Terlingua Ranch FB page and my blog site here, more reports of Golden eagles are coming in!

    1. Near Lajitas and the Rio Grande (John Grimm),
    2. One seen killing a raven over the mountain where I am now located!,
    3. An eagle and red-tailed hawk confrontation from a resident on the Ranch,
    4. A sighting by a hiker on Marufo Vega Trail in the National Park (1994) .
    5. Marathon. 12/2010

    This is good news!! Keep those reports coming.

  3. Dragnfli March 27, 2014 at 7:42 pm #

    I remember how excited my mother was when we spotted a juvenile flying over the highway on our drive to California when I was 15.

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