Photographing Golden Eagles in Bald Eagle Country
Here is a little background on my mission to photograph a Golden Eagle in Bald Eagle country...close to home.
Bald Eagle Country for the purpose of this discussion is The Driftless Area, a region comprised of southwestern Wisconsin, southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa, and the extreme northwestern corner of Illinois. It was never covered by ice during the last ice age, and therefore lacks glacial deposits, also termed “drift”. Its landscape is characterized by steep hills, forested ridges, deeply carved river valleys with spring-fed waterfalls and cold-water trout streams. The Driftless Area covers approximately 24,000 square miles.
The Driftless Area has been at the forefront of Bald Eagle recovery in the lower 48 states. It is home to the National Eagle Center https://www.nationaleaglecenter.org/ located in Wabasha, MN about 20 minutes from my home. Although the Bald eagle gets most of the love, the National Eagle Center annually sponsors a Golden Eagle Survey. 2022 marked the 18th such annual survey.
On Saturday, January 15, 195 volunteer citizen scientists canvassed out across portions of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa in search of Golden Eagles. Their efforts combined for more than 7,000 miles traveled, and more than 600 hours logged! It was a beautiful winter day with clear, sunny skies - perfect for observing raptors - and yielded some unexpected results. While the Golden Eagle count was down, surveyors reported over 1,600 Bald Eagles. The Golden Eagle count was only 99 birds.
Understanding that the Golden Eagle is only a winter resident of the Driftless Area and is much less common in this area, I reached out to the National Eagle Center to learn more about the Golden Eagle’s diet and roosting habits. It turns out that they feed very differently from Balds. Golden Eagles very seldom feed on fish, which is the majority of the Balds' diet. Because the Golden Eagle has a smaller beak it's not as capable of feeding on the frozen carcasses of roadkill. Goldens hunt primarily small mammals such as squirrel and rabbit. They prefer to hunt the “goat prairies” which are mainly on south exposed bluff faces. These more open “goat prairies” provide the Golden Eagle’s better visibility and less hazards when pursuing prey. Their preferred roosting areas have very little disturbance and are typically distant from roads. The back of undeveloped valleys near “goat prairies" seem to be a good formula.
Armed with a better understanding it was time to grab the camera and take drive.
Photographed a perched Golden Eagle at a very long distance. It then took flight and again I got an image at a very long distance.
No luck until about 4:00 in the afternoon. I spotted a couple of eagles in the distance. With the binoculars I could see that they were not mature Balds, maybe immature Balds, so I drove around the bluff to get a better look. These two birds were indeed Golden Eagles, and they were hunting. I positioned the truck relatively close but in a spot that wouldn’t disturb the hunt.
Then it happened, the two Golden Eagles dropped behind an adjacent hill and did not return. I quickly got around the end of the hill and saw a Golden on the ground and the second circling above it. I did not want to disturb their meal so I stayed in the cover. The second eagle dove to get his share, only to be turned away by the female (I believe).
The photos that I got will certainly not win any photo contest. They were taken with a long telephoto, handheld and out of breath. The birds were still over 100 yards away, but I feel very fortunate to have had the experience “in my backyard” as I was within 25 miles of home in western Wisconsin.