We had just finished a wonderful three hours enjoying the avian bounty of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, just south of Cambridge, MD. Our animated discussion about winter waterfowl was slammed to a halt as a huge raptor flew right in front of us and disappeared into the trees bordering Key Wallace Drive.
The bird was only in view for a few seconds, but the identification was unmistakable. Huge, powerful, dark brown and wearing an elegant golden scarf — it was a golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), and we were momentarily speechless.
Worldwide, there are only about 300,000 golden eagles. About 35 percent of them spend some portion of their lives in the United States. Seeing golden eagles outside their breeding range is a rare sight. The big bird’s bulk and beauty made the sighting as exceptional as it was uncommon.
Roughly the same size as the familiar bald eagle, goldens are impressively large with wing spans of 7 feet. As is common with raptors, females are bigger than males. A female golden eagle can weigh more than 11 pounds, while males average a bit less than eight.
The golden eagle is almost completely covered in dark brown feathers, all the way down to its toes. Golden feathers cover the nape and crown. The late afternoon sunlight was perfect for viewing those eponymous feathers.
It’s not until the fifth summer that golden eagles reach full maturity, achieving their “definitive basic molt,” the term ornithologists use to describe an adult bird’s plumage. (In many species, although not eagles, the basic molt is interrupted annually by a bird’s breeding plumage.)
Adult golden eagles have dark gray bands or central spots on their tails. Young birds have a noticeable white base on their tails, and a dark terminal band is always clear.
Young goldens also have white patches on their wings, which are visible in flight.
The beak of the golden is as formidable as the fierce one of the bald eagle. The golden’s bill has a dark tip that fades to gray at the base. It has a yellow cere, the nose hole on the beak, and yellow orbital rings. The talons, too, are yellow.
The eagle we had seen had likely come from northern Canada or Alaska. There is a big, largely resident population of golden eagles in western North America in an area that extends from British Columbia to Mexico and inland through Colorado. In the summer, goldens breed there and farther north.
Migratory birds head south and east with the first major snow of September, but it may take them two months to reach wintering grounds in the Central and Eastern United States. Young golden eagles arrive first, with mature adults coming about two weeks later. We tend to see golden eagles in the Chesapeake Bay region by late November.
Golden eagles aren’t confined to North America. There are five to six subpopulations of the species that can be found in Europe, Asia and even Africa.
Although our government uses the bald eagle as a national symbol, it is the golden eagles that is the most common national emblem, symbolizing countries from Mexico to Albania, Austria, Germany and even remote Kazakhstan.
Golden eagles build large stick nests, usually on cliffs or escarpments, although they will also use large trees. The nests are as big as one might expect, averaging 5– to 6-feet wide and 2 feet deep.
Pairs mate for life and produce one brood annually. If food is scarce, they may skip a year. It takes a major effort to produce young. Although females lay one to three eggs, the pair only supports one eaglet annually. It takes the eaglet two to three months to fledge.
Golden eagles feed primarily on small mammals. On the breeding grounds, this means hares, rabbits and prairie dogs. Occasionally, these massive birds attack and kill much larger game such as deer and bighorn sheep. They also eat carrion and will steal food from other birds, such as fish from osprey.
In the Chesapeake region, golden eagles rely on waterfowl as their main dietary source, taking geese, swans and great blue herons, along with rabbits, squirrels and the like.
Although parents may hunt in pairs on the breeding territory, golden eagles usually hunt alone. The solitary bird will soar or glide over open land to spot its prey with — you guessed it — its eagle eyes. It can dive at astonishing speed, close to 200 mph.
This avian emissary from afar reminded me of how interconnected the world can be. I imagined an old man half a world away equally thrilled to see a golden eagle flying low over some central Asian plateau. These eagles make traversing boundaries seem effortless. Would that humans could do so with the same grace and ease.