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NATURE NOTE- Number 78 October 14, 2023
Sometimes we think scientists know all there is to know about a particular animal since they have been studying it for a long time and we have field guides and books with lots of information on the animal. Then someone takes a second look, and “wow”. We just learned that we didn’t know a lot after all. This is the case with our…
Current topic: Golden Eagles in Virginia
Bald Eagles have been making a major comeback in our state for a number of years. Their numbers are now somewhere around 3000 breeding pair along the Chesapeake Bay alone. However, the other eagle in Virginia is the lesser discussed Golden Eagle. Without the white head and tail of the Bald Eagle, it is mostly dark with a seldom-seen golden neck and throat. It flies high and can be confused with a Turkey
Vulture. It has a wide distribution throughout the world and in North America is quite common in the west. In the east it has been known as a “transit” during migration and some field guides consider it rare in the east. In the fall Golden Eagles are seen occasionally by hawk watchers at high spots on the Blue Ridge Parkway, such as Harvey’s Knob. However, up until some research started in 2009 by wildlife biologists with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, not a lot was known about this bird’s eastern winter range. Most research had been done on birds in the far west that occupied a different, more open habitat. Once the Virginia research project was underway, it was found that the wintering population of Golden Eagles in western Virginia was much higher than previously known. It seems that the population that summers in northeastern Canada moves into its winter range along the high Appalachians in very remote and isolated places not readily seen by humans. The initial research began by placing road-killed deer caucuses in selected sites and using trail cameras to record visitors. This revealed the larger numbers of Golden Eagles. Step two was to begin trapping these birds at the sites using nets launched from well-hidden blinds. As you might expect, the final step of removing the large bird (wingspan of 6-7 feet) with huge, sharp talons from the net had a few challenges as well, especially in the snow and cold. But once this technique was mastered, the birds were banded, blood samples were drawn, and transmitters were fitted on their backs. This started providing valuable telemetry data back to monitoring stations that allowed the biologists to learn about their movements, ranges, flight patterns, flight altitude, and other characteristics that were previously unknown about the eastern population’s winter range. This data is still being analyzed and applied to a number of situations, to include trying to assess the impact of proposed wind turbines on high mountains in Appalachia on the Golden Eagle. One eagle that transmitted data for 3 years showed her winter range to be in Highland County (with an average elevation of over 2800’) west of Staunton and I-81, and then her spring movement back to her breeding ground in Labrador, crossing Pennsylvania, New York and eastern Canada. Blood samples collected from netted birds revealed information on lead poisoning caused by lead shot used by hunters. As the eagles ingested the meat of deer carrion, they absorbed high levels of lead. This has prompted more research and has implications on hunting regulations. All of this came about years after most wildlife experts thought that there wasn’t much more to know about those few Golden Eagle strangers that wandered through the state in the fall. Surprise!
While all of this is interesting as far as eagles and nature, there are other lessons here for your scouts that you, as an adult leader, can pass on as well. For example, it shows how highly sophisticated technology is being used in wildlife research to collect data and learn more about animals. So if you have that young scout that has interest in computer science AND does not want to work behind a desk after college, this shows how these interests can be merged into a potentially fascinating outdoor careers. Or maybe that young scout is interested in medical research. Here we see it’s not all done on humans, and how medical research can impact on policy decisions on wildlife. And just maybe learning about those eagle flight paths will help a future engineer better locate a wind turbine. It’s all a big network and we need all the pieces. Unfortunately so many people have no idea of the broad range of natural resource management options that are out there. Parents and teachers may not be able to help much either. All of these jobs don’t require a 4 year college degree, as technicians and aides are needed as well. So, scoutmaster, here is your chance to talk to your scouts about what all can be done with an interest in wildlife. And if you are on the scout reservation this winter, keep an eye out for a very large, high-flying, solitary bird. We have some high, remote mountains that might attract a wintering Golden Eagle. Maybe, just maybe.
Thank you for reading NATURE NOTES. I hope you learned something you can pass on. Let me know your thoughts and how you like these NATURE NOTES at
Most of the information for this NN came from a Virginia Wildlife article in the Jan-Feb 2023 edition on Golden Eagles. This magazine is an excellent source of information on our state’s wildlife and how it is managed and cared for by DWR. Subscriptions are $12.95 per year and available at www.virginiawildlife.gov .