By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader
I sat at the Ashland Hawk Watch with a local birder also named Joe this past Monday enjoying a beautiful day without many hawks. Joe had seen 276 species of birds in Delaware for the year, and came to Ashland to add one more…a Golden Eagle. Being a slow migration day, we simply enjoyed some conversation and the occasional Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawk that whizzed by. I told Joe that you never know when you are going to “strike gold”. Golden Eagle migration is at its peak in the first half of November, and they can come through just about any day in any weather.
At 11:50 a.m., just after other birders, Hank and Carol appeared, I saw a bird out of the corner of my eye and yelled to everyone, “get on that bird”! Sure enough, it was an immature Golden Eagle! Joe and I high-fived to celebrate his 277th species of the year in the state. This was Golden Eagle number 20 for the fall migration season at Ashland Hawk Watch. Between 2007 and 2012, the most we have seen during any hawk watch season was 13 in 2009. Sighting a Golden Eagle means much more than just a number, however.
Golden Eagles in eastern North America are rare, and are more common in western North America and even wild areas of Asia and Europe. Most of the small eastern population nests in northern Ontario, Quebec, and Labrador in remote, rugged, wild places. Rare and wild are two adjectives that certainly apply to Golden Eagles. Add to that exciting, majestic, agile, and powerful. To me, they represent a symbol of wilderness, like hearing a wolf howl or seeing a whale breach. This most powerful and fierce North American raptor stakes claim to territories of the far north that I can only dream of. It rules over these wild and remote landscapes as a top-tier predator. Seeing a Golden Eagle is to imagine the beautiful northern ecosystems it has been, to get a taste of unspoiled wildness, and sense its supremacy over the furred and feathered.
Golden Eagles are the size of a Bald Eagle but usually hunt more like a fierce, fast, large, agile, and powerful hawk. Our national symbol is more likely to be found eating carrion, plucking dead fish floating on a lake, or stealing food from other eagles and Osprey. Goldens are known to do these things too, but usually represent themselves as first-class hunters. They eat mostly rabbits and squirrels across their range, but they are also known to capture and kill large prey such as goats, deer, seals, coyotes, bobcats, and large birds like swans, cranes, and herons. Seven methods of attack have been described for Golden Eagles. My two favorites, however are “low flight with sustained grip attack” and “walk and grab attack”. The former is used to ride on the back of large prey, gripping it until the prey dies, and the latter to capture prey that are hiding behind an obstruction. These birds can dive at almost 200mph and even hunt in small packs like wolves. (The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology; Retrieved from The Birds of North America Online database: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/BNA/; Nov, 2013).
Golden Eagles may be one of the most revered, honored, and embodied birds in the world. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Return of the King, one of my favorite scenes is when the Gwaihir, basically gigantic Golden Eagles, come to the rescue, killing dragons, and flying away with the good guys on their backs. Check it out!
Greg Inskip, a former member of the Board for the Delaware Nature Society, is the biggest Golden Eagle aficionado that I know. He has studied them through the course of several winters at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland. He sums them up in this way…
“Like big cats, bears and wolves, eagles are apex predators with a mythic dimension that goes back thousands of years. Bald and golden eagles are both big, powerful birds that command attention even if they are just gliding past or soaring high overhead. Golden eagles are much scarcer in the east and are exciting to see for that reason too. Golden eagles in particular have impressed Europeans, Asians and Native Americans alike with their high flight and aggressive athleticism, strength and speed in diving attacks on prey. Usually these attributes are not directly in view when the eagles are gliding past a hawk watch, but the power is still there to be seen, as it can be seen in lions or wolves resting at their ease.”
For some Native American tribes, Golden Eagle feathers are as symbolic as the crucifix for Christians. They are the national animal of five nations including Mexico. They have also been symbols used by the Roman Empire and other European civilizations, in the Arab world, in the Bible and even by the Nazis. Needless to say, this bird has awed and inspired cultures all over the northern hemisphere for centuries.
So I think that species number 277 that Joe witnessed on Monday at Ashland was not just another tick on his list, but rather another link in the chain of humans that have stared, wide-eyed, at this great symbol of the untamed wild.
I will leave you with this video that Alan Kneidel captured of a Golden Eagle flying over Ashland Hawk Watch on November 2, 2013. Come try to see one for yourself soon, as the Hawk Watch season ends on the last day of November.