Saturday, May 30, 2009

Good Eagle Day

Saturday May 30 2009

At the ride this weekend, retired bird biologist and endurance rider Karen S said to me, "Someone told me they saw some golden eagles on a nest near Lisa's down Bates Creek Road. Is that true?"

"Oh, Pshaw!" I said. "Those weren't eagles. That's a red-tailed hawk nest. They raised young last year, but this year I didn't see anything on the nest." Some people who aren't quite the bird fanatic I am tend to confuse eagles with hawks, turkey vultures, or even Ravens.

One guy I once worked with came back from a hike in an aspen forest: "Ohmigod this eagle attacked me! It flew at me screeching and almost took off the top of my head! It was HUGE!" This was a guy who confused a hawk with a turkey vulture, and not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's unlikely an eagle would exhibit that behavior, or that an eagle would even be flying and maneuvering through a thick aspen forest in the first place. However, a bird screaming and diving at you might wig you out a bit. Especially if you were smoking something. And this is typical behavior of a goshawk who's defending his nest which is often in an aspen or fir forest (a goshawk did this to me a couple of times), dive-bombing a human while screeching, though a goshawk is considerably smaller than an eagle.

(And of course, I'm really no bird expert - I can't tell one LBJ - Little Brown Job - from another, and on the rare occasion, I couldn't tell a Raven from a crow - but don't tell anybody that!)

The next day after Pshawing to Karen about eagles down the creek, I was driving Tracy to the airport and almost had a wreck on Bates Creek road when I saw TWO GOLDEN EAGLES in a tree by that red-tailed hawk nest! Just knock me over with a feather!

They were sitting in a bare tree... only I thought perhaps the nest from last year had fallen over, since one of the trees around there had lost some big limbs, and the leaves are now so thick on the cottonwood trees it's hard to see into them.

I emailed Karen right away, and she emailed back "There's supposed to be a Bald Eagle nest between Bruneau and Grandview - let's go look at both of them." If the Bald Eagle nest was real, it's possible it would be the first one ever recorded in Owyhee County.

Today we met up, and first went to Lisa's. We immediately spotted a red-tailed hawk, and a nest, 50 yards down the creek from Lisa's house - that would mean there was no eagle nest right in the vicinity. However, it was still possible that where I'd seen the eagles further up the creek was far enough away that eagles would be nesting there (if indeed the old red-tail nest was still there).

Lisa took us in her big pickup truck, drove across the creek to near where the nest was supposed to be, and we got out and snooped around. No big birds in sight - but Karen did find a possible golden eagle feather, and we found plenty of whitewash where they, or a hawk, obviously spent some time roosting in that bare tree. There were some big branches that had split off a tree and fallen in the creek - possibly the nest had been on one of those, though impossible to tell for sure.

We were just about to leave, when Karen took one more look up - "Wait - I see a nest!" It was so well hidden in the leaves we'd almost missed it - the birds could've pooped on us we were so close! Karen put her scope on the nest from a couple of different angles - but it wasn't occupied. There were no fresh greens - "decoration" - that eagles and hawks decorate their nest with, though there were some from this year - a lighter brown color than the rest of the nest. There was also a kingbird flying in and out of that big nest to his own nest - which would be mighty brave of a little bird that would be nice lunch for a hawk or eagle.

So, no golden eagles there, (or hawks), but it is a good sign that several people have seen them, and it's possible they started to nest and quit, or they failed. Maybe they'll try next year. There's a TON of jackrabbits around - their main food source. Babies wouldn't go hungry, and the nest is quite well protected, and the road wouldn't bother them as it's far enough away, and with a low volume of traffic.

Next - down the highway past Grandview for bald eagles. The last couple of weeks I've been addicted to a live Bald Eagle Cam of a nest with three babies in Vancouver BC. I've been out with Karen the last couple of summers to see some golden eagle nests and babies around here, by car, on foot, and on horseback, but this would be my first Bald Eagle nest, if indeed it existed. Golden eagles are common in this area, but despite the Snake River full of fish nearby (bald eagles' main source of food) bald eagle nests are not common anywhere within a couple of hours of here.

We turned on a road toward the Snake River, going by specific instructions another biologist had given Karen: "The eagles were quite accommodating in that when the tree grove is viewed from the west, you'll see the bald eagle nest on outside branches of a tree."

We first came across a red-tailed hawk sitting on her nest in a tree right by the road. Karen wasn't sure how close together a bald eagle and red-tailed hawk would nest. We drove on to the west side of a grove of cottonwood trees, and there, nice and accommodating as you please, was an adult bald eagle in a tree. Karen found the nest quite easily (not as easy for me to pick out quickly! She has an eye for them). It was in about the middle of the cottonwood tree, a big nest supported by several branches off the trunk, and well-sheltered by leaf cover till probably later in the afternoons. (One study Karen has done showed that heat is the biggest killer of golden eagle babies, especially the ones in cliff nests.)

We were about 200 yards away, (the hawk nest probably less than that from the eagle nest), and with Karen's scope, we had a great view into the nest - and saw 2 babies. Big and black-feathered, and looked just about ready to fledge any day.

Then an adult flew into the nest; she (or he) had some dark feathers on her head, so she was possibly no older than 5 years old. Then the other adult flew into the nest, while the first one took off towards the Snake River, less than a half mile away.

We watched a while - our real live eagle cam - then headed home.

It was a Good Eagle Day.

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