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Wednesday, 04 March 2015 15:01

A Golden secret

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out natcornThere is one winter visitor to our North Carolina Mountains that is probably happy the Blue Ridge Parkway is closed and is not burgeoning with sightseers and thrill-seekers like it is the rest of the year. That visitor would be Aquila chrysaetos canadensis, the North American golden eagle. There is certainly a mystique about this bird, North America’s largest raptor. It is fairly common out West and is thought of as a bird of wide-open areas. But there is a small – 3,000 to 5,000 – population of golden eagles that breed in northeastern Quebec and migrate throughout the Appalachians. This bird, from preliminary research, appears to be a forest dweller that eschews human contact.

Chris Kelley, Mountain Diversity biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, has been a part of a team studying golden eagles in North Carolina since 2011.

“We began testing the waters in 2011 and really got up and running in 2013,” Kelly said. The umbrella Kelly (NCWRC) and partners are working under is the Eastern Golden Eagle Working Group – described on their website (www.egewg.org) as, “… a collaboration of biologists and wildlife managers from the U.S. and Canada dedicated to developing a more complete understanding of golden eagle life history and ecology throughout eastern North America.” 

This collaboration that includes at least 20 institutions from the U.S. and Canada was awarded Wings Across the America’s 2013 Research and Management Partnership Award and is headed by Todd Katzner, research biologist at West Virginia University.

This is such a wonderful project on so many levels: The collaboration of so many researchers shows as Michaels Rains, director of the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Research Station notes, “We all accomplish more when we join forces.” And the impetus for this research shows how thoughtful scientists and resource managers are trying to cope with today’s realities. According to Katzner, “The goal of this project is to develop high-resolution spatial maps showing migration corridors of and habitat use by eastern golden eagles in regions of high potential for wind development. These maps can then be used to guide safer development of wind energy while also protecting a suite of species similar to golden eagles.” 

Resource managers are quickly thrown under the bus by “clean energy” proponents if they dare speak about environmental consequences of alternative energy methods and/or mechanics, and by “conservation/environmental” groups if they are perceived to be advocating in favor of methodologies that may have environmental impacts. 

The reality is that fossil fuel dependence is expensive, unclean and ultimately unsustainable and the transition to “clean” energy is not without its own set of environmental consequences. The Eastern Golden Eagle Working Group and collaborations like them across the country are to be commended for their efforts to get ahead of the curve.

It’s exciting here at home, too. Just like “Discover Life in America” is showing us how little we actually know about the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, this golden eagle study is showing how little we know about this magnificent winter visitor. Kelly notes that one site in Mitchell County recorded more than a dozen different birds. The study relies primarily on action-motivated trail cameras set up in proximity to bait (carcasses, mainly road-killed deer, but hogs in the case of Purchase Knob) plus researchers in blinds and sometimes cannon nets are employed to capture birds and outfit them with GPS units that will track them across their winter habitat and follow them to their breeding grounds in Canada.

Kelly noted that birds (since the inception of the study) have been recorded from 14 counties across the mountains of North Carolina from Cherokee to Surry and as far south as Rutherford. And she notes that telemetry units (N.C. has outfitted four birds with GPS units) have provided another layer of information regarding the habits and movements of golden eagles across WNC during the winter. She noted that unlike the “open-spaces” birds of the west, eastern golden eagles appear to like remote forested areas along ridge tops. “We often find them perched in trees just below ridge-tops, perhaps hunting from these locations,” Kelly said.

Paul Super, the science coordinator for the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center at Purchase Knob in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, told me that the Park Service knew of the research and because the Park Service and the Appalachian Highlands Learning Center like to work with regional researchers, “… we created a ‘camera site’ at Purchase Knob.” Super said that the site, which was set up around the second week in January, seemed to primarily be feeding coyotes and neighborhood hunting dogs until Feb. 15 when a mature golden eagle showed up.

This research is in its infancy and I hope to be able to report on it as it grows and its data is examined. In the meantime, it proves that even in the wintertime it’s important to remember to look up!

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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