Searching for Golden Eagles in Wabasha
A Golden Eagle. Photo by Chris Hill - fotolia.
On a typical afternoon I’m one of the deskbound workers in downtown Minneapolis, but this afternoon I was on a dirt road surrounded by only an abandoned house and grazing cows. It was nearing the end of December and Scott Mehus, education director of the National Eagle Center, was in a t-shirt with no jacket. Though the temperatures were more typical for a fall day, the breeze gave me goose bumps through my coat as I held up binoculars, scanning the trees along the rugged bluffs of Wabasha.
When I told Mehus I had never seen a golden eagle in the wild (just the one that lives at the Center), he didn’t hesitate to take me out for my first sighting. I didn’t want to miss out on an opportunity for my own guided bird watching excursion with an expert—Mehus has been searching for golden eagles for more than 20 years.
Mehus started recording their numbers, and found he was reporting more golden eagles than ever before. Mehus questioned his initial reports and wondered if he was double counting golden eagles that might be traveling with him as he moved to the next spotting location, so he enlisted the help of volunteers. The Wintering Golden Eagles Survey began in 2005, and occurs the third Saturday each January. This year, 147 golden eagles were spotted in southeast Minnesota, western Wisconsin, and northeast Iowa. In partnership with the National Eagle Center, Audubon Minnesota, and the Minnesota DNR’s Nongame Wildlife Program, Mehus now studies the golden eagles more intently as part of the Golden Eagle Project.
I listened to a herd of ducks flapping away from the nearby stream as Mehus and I searched for “dark clumps” nestled in the braches, which is the best way to find camouflaged golden eagles. Golden eagles and juvenile bald eagles (which do not yet have the iconic white head and tail feathers) only show subtle differences such as the size of their heads and beaks, and varying patterns on the underside of their wings.
Scott Mehus of the National Eagle Center. Photo by Robb Long.
Unlike the bald eagle, golden eagles are less likely to be found by the river because they don’t feed on fish. They instead prefer terrestrial prey such as rabbits, squirrels, reptiles, and turkeys, and they hunt for their food near open spaces in the bluffs called goat prairies. “Goat prairies are on the south and west facing sides of the bluffs, so they get a lot of sunlight,” explains Mehus. Goat prairies are essential to golden eagles’ survival so they can hunt food, but finding and catching food has become more difficult because of an overgrowth of Red Cedar trees.
“Red Cedar was usually found in rocky outcroppings, and not by the goat prairies. Historically, Native Americans set fires to the hillside to provide habitat for game, but since we’ve stopped fire, Red Cedars are taking those areas over,” says Mehus. “Now when a golden eagle comes to catch prey, the prey has a chance to run to the Red Cedars, less likely a golden eagle will be able to kill it.”
Golden eagles winter in the bluff country of Minnesota November through March, but they’re most commonly found westward of the Missouri River to California, up into Canada and Alaska, and northern Mexico. Before tracking golden eagles in Minnesota, the theory was that they got off track and had mistaken the bluffs for miniature mountains. Once radio transmitters were attached to the golden eagles, Mehus says they discovered that they “fly north about 2,000 miles or so into Canada, the northwest territories, and Nunavut, just below the arctic circle, to spend the summer.”
Several Canadian provinces list the golden eagle as threatened, and even endangered. “We need to be concerned about the golden eagle as it’s relying on Minnesota for habitat to get them through winter,” Mehus advocates. “Most wildlife managers had no idea the bird was here, let alone what its habitat requirements were,” but now they are able to share their findings to develop habitat management guidelines.
During our outing, we stopped at three locations to spot a golden eagle, but had no luck. Mehus spotted a few red-tailed hawks, blue jays, and several bald eagles. Even as Mehus sat in the driver’s seat and drove us to the bluffs, he’d interrupt our conversation to enthusiastically point out birds hiding in the trees and rodents gallivanting along the road. “I’m always finding birds and critters when I drive. I haven’t been in any accidents . . . yet!” Mehus said with a laugh.
I was surprised (and frustrated) that I couldn’t spot most of the birds Mehus pointed out, but he assured me that it takes practice and birding education to know what you’re looking for. I realized that in addition to my lack of birding know-how, my inability to find birds like Mehus could be a sign of my unconscious ignorance towards nature.
I think we are too often criticized in the digital age that we are too busy looking down at our screens, consumed by a transparent world that kidnaps us from the present. But searching for golden eagles with Mehus reminded me how disconnected I am from the outdoors—I forget about all the other life I share the earth with and how we all support one another to keep our fragile ecosystem alive. I not only fail to seek out natural beauty, but I fail to notice it, even when it flies right by me.
During our outing, Mehus cited a Mark Twain quote: “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.” Mehus expanded by saying that the best way to learn about birds is to interact with them in their natural state. Go outside. Inspect the ground. Look up. Listen. And places like the National Eagle Center have curated interactive learning tools and offer opportunities to see eagles within a couple feet’s distance, preserving the importance of experiencing nature and connecting with the world away from a screen.
Learn more about the National Eagle Center and reserve your spot on a guided eagle watching tour by visiting nationaleaglecenter.org. If you’re interested in learning about other types of birds, Mehus recommends these Minnesota birding destinations:
Raptor Center: 1920 Fitch Ave., St. Paul, 612-624-4745, raptor.umn.edu
International Owl Center: 126 E. Cedar St., Houston, MN, 507-896-6957, internationalowlcenter.org
Alma’s Tundra Swans: Wings Over Alma Nature & Art Center, 110 N. Main St., Alma, WI, 608-685-3303, wingsoveralma.org