As often is the case, a recent e-mail prompted the topic of today's column. Russ Lee of Staples sent me the following message.
"Yesterday I saw a large raptor (eagle size) just south of Staples. It was soaring at about 100 feet. It wasn't a bald eagle. It didn't have a white head or tail, but was about that size. The most distinctive marking was white on the underside of the wings. The white marking went from the breast outward about half way to the wingtip and about a third of the way from the leading edge to the rear of the wing. I'm fairly familiar with Minnesota birds and have never seen anything like it. Could it have been a golden eagle?"
The first two species that came to my mind were the rough-legged hawk and an immature golden eagle. The rough-legged is a large bird that's often mistaken for an eagle, especially when perched at a distance. The dark phase has a great deal of white on the undersides of its wings. However, with the detail Russ provided as to the placement of the white markings, I'm fairly certain he saw an immature golden eagle.
For the Pillager Christmas Bird Count I covered an area from Pillager west to Motley. We saw one immature golden eagle and three rough-legged hawks that day. Two more golden eagles were seen by birders in other parts of the counting circle, so golden eagles definitely are in central Minnesota. Bald eagles are more common, but it's interesting to note that the Minnesota Ornitholgists' Union says golden eagles have been seen in every county of the state.
In the winter 2004 edition of "The Loon," the journal of the MOU, golden eagles were reportedly seen in 13 southern and six northern counties in all regions of Minnesota except the southwest. During the West Skyline Hawk Count in Duluth on March 23, 2004, 19 adults and one juvenile were seen. Spring migration tallies in that same count area showed 98 golden eagles in March, 27 in April and two in May, for a seasonal total of 127.
While these birds were seen in spring, the North Shore is one of the best places in North America to observe fall raptor migrations. Hawks, eagles and falcons concentrate by Lake Superior, and on a day with northwest winds in September or October it's possible to see thousands of raptors. In addition to goldens, bald eagles, osprey and many species of hawks, including merlins and peregrine falcons, may be seen winging their way south.
In the fall 2004 issue of "The Loon," the previous winter season, December 1, 2003 through February 29, 2004, 12 goldens were seen in southeastern Minnesota in Fillmore, Houston and Winona counties. Additional birds were spotted throughout that time frame during the Pillager Christmas Bird Count and in Hennepin, Pine, Otter Tail, Polk, Wilkin and St. Louis counties.
With a shape, size, length and wingspan about the same, how can you tell the difference between golden eagles and bald eagles?
The bill of the mature golden eagle is dark and smaller than that of the bald, which is longer, heavier and yellow. Eyes of the golden are dark brown; those of the bald are yellow. Legs of the golden are feathered to the toes; the bald's are feathered halfway down the tarsus. Adult golden eagles are dark all over with golden feathers on the crown and nape. It's hard to see the sheen of this exquisite headdress unless you are close up or sunlight illuminates the feathers. Immature goldens also have this same golden plumage. Adult bald eagles sport the familiar white head and tail.
Immatures of both species are a little trickier to distinguish, especially in flight and when looking up in the sky. The immature golden is dark from below with the white areas limited to the base of primaries, outer secondaries on wings and base of tail. The broad white tailband and white wing patches of the immature are good field marks. Patches is the definitive word here.
The bald has white mottling on the underside of the body with variable amounts of white on belly after first year. While some resources state the bald eagle has white "armpits," I personally find that hard to discern. The undertail, if whitish, has dark edges. Immature plumage is kept for about four years in both species.
Although Minnesota's landscape varies greatly from woods to wetlands to prairies and plains and goldens have been spotted in all of these habitats, the general habitat for the golden is in the mountains, foothills and adjacent grasslands farther to the west. It is an superb hunter and feeds primarily on rabbits and rodents and occasionally on carrion.
The Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) shows the population of goldens is increasing in the west, but decreasing in the central part of the U.S. CBC shows numbers in general across the continent are down. Federal protection has curtailed some of the aerial hunting and poisoning of this species.
The golden eagle is a solitary bird, and unlike the bald eagle, doesn't congregate in large numbers during the winter. I don't believe there is a record of a golden eagle nesting in Minnesota. According to the "Stokes Field Guide to Birds," nest building may begin any time during nonbreeding season when a site is clear of snow. Breeding success is often tied to populations of prey such as rabbits.
Like bald eagles, golden eagles are protected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Possession of a feather or other body part is a felony with a fine of up to $10,000 and/or 10 years in prison, although federally recognized Native Americans are able to possess these emblems that are traditional in their culture.
So thanks, Russ, for your inquiry about the raptor you saw near Staples. Keep looking for more goldens in and around the lakes area. It'll be interesting to follow this species in the future to see if one nests in the land of the bald eagle.
Andrea Lee Lambrecht, naturalist & outdoor writer, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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