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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.

Live Chat: Protecting the World’s Predators

8 Jan

Recent organized kill parties of coyotes and wolves have circulated on social media like an epidemic virus. Large coyote hunts in New Mexico and Idaho, private and state-organized hunting events of wolves in several western states, and the recently publicized role of the federal government ‘Wildlife Services’ in blanket extermination of all large mammalian predators, demonstrates and increases awareness of our attitudes and behavior toward predators in our ecosystems. Many issues are layered at all levels: scientific, public attitudes, industry (ranching), and public policy.

Historical and recent approaches have demonstrated that simple education is insufficient and ineffective. Underneath current attitudes of predators and predation is an old and ingrained hate and fear of the ‘top of the food chain’, except for one species: Homo sapien. The roots are cultural, historical, social, psychological and religious (yes, it’s roots in part come from religious doctrine). Until we can rid the demon inside us, so to speak, reception to scientific evidence for the beneficial role of predators, and attempts at reasoning and rational discussion on how to live with other natural predators (which, in all biological sense, humans are the ultimate predator) will fail.

This Thursday, January 9th, Science Magazine online hosts a live chat with guest speakers: an ecologist and an environmental scholar, also a lecturer in environmental ethics. Participants can pose questions to the host and guests.

“What is it about large predators that makes them so important in ecosystems? How can we ensure their continued survival in a world with increasing human encroachment? And what would a world without predators look like if we fail?”

Join in on Thursday at 3 p.m. EST on the linked page for a live video chat. Leave questions for the guests in the comment section below the announcement. Readers here are invited to make comments here on this blog page for possible discussion, too.

79852 is Home

7 Apr

A collaborative production by Terlingua singer/songwriter Alex Whitmore, Jason Blum, and videographer Jessica Lutz: 79852. This is Home for this locality of the desert and all its denizens, including me.

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