Bluff country golden eagle census counts record number in 2016

Immature golden eagles have a very distinct pattern of white in three patches, one on each wing and one on the tail which makes them easy to distinguish from bald eagles. While some birders may be chasing wintering owls and wayward gulls, others are chasing eagles. The upper Mississippi River is known for its abundance of wintering bald eagles but now in winter we have the bonus of golden eagles in the river valley surrounding the Mississippi in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa.

Bald eagles typically are found right along the river. Any place with open water has the potential for dozens to hundreds of eagles watching for fish or waterfowl. Golden eagles usually are found away from the river in the bluffs. They favor perching in so-called goat prairies – areas of tall grass prairie on the south, southwest facing sides of bluffs. Instead of fish and ducks, goldens are watching for rabbits, squirrels, and even wild turkeys.

The National Eagle Center has been part of a monitoring project that keeps track of the wintering golden eagle situation. For the past 12 years intrepid volunteers head out in January to survey how many eagles are overwintering. For this year’s survey, more than 180 volunteers documented 147 golden eagles in the survey area – a record high. Scott Mehus, education director for the National Eagle Center, who co-coordinates the Golden Eagle Project notes, “Through this annual survey and satellite tracking, we’ve learned they can be found wintering in many areas of the Midwest.”

This year, volunteers also observed 1,509 bald eagles, which is significant because most of the survey area is focused away from the Mississippi River, where thousands of bald eagle spend the winter. When food sources are abundant even in the bluffs and areas away from open water, bald eagles can be found in many places across the Midwest.

Another part of the Golden Eagle Project includes working with other groups to put satellite packs on golden eagles to track where the birds spend their breeding season. The data so far shows that the birds wintering here breed up into the Arctic Circle in northern Canada. You can read more about the tagged birds and see maps of where they go here.

If you would to see golden eagles for yourself, the National Eagle Center also offers golden eagle tours around Wabasha and the surrounding river valley throughout the winter. If you can’t make the tour dates there are suggested routes available on the center's website and sightings submitted also can be a pretty good resource for looking for finding these remarkable birds.

The easiest way to tell golden eagles apart from bald eagles is to note the patterning. Immature bald eagles can look very similar, but they can have random patches of white all over their body and wings. Goldens will either lack the white, or immature birds that do have white will have a uniform pattern: one spot of white on each wing and a white spot on the tail. Also, goldens tend to hold their wings in a slight v-shape while bald eagles hold their wings flat. 

 If you’d like to learn more secrets of golden eagle identification, sign up for an eagle watching tour with the National Eagle Center.

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