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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Wisconsin Attracts More Golden Eagles

Everyone loves the bald eagle’s good-looks, piercing eyes and merciless temperament, but few sports teams claim the big raptor’s name.

Whether you’re talking pro, college or high-school sports, “Bald Eagles” seldom flies as a team nickname. After all, most cheerleaders can’t bring themselves to jump around, shake their pompoms and yell “Go Baldies, go!” or “You got this, Baldies!” as their beloved team takes the field or court.

No, folks only yell such endearments at aging buddies during charity softball games or community 5-K races. We get our yuks when someone shouts, “Way to go, Baldy!” as ol’ chrome-dome lurches toward home or the finish line.

Maybe that’s why God created the golden eagle. Schools need a stand-in for the bald eagle, and few fans nitpick the substitution. Probably 99% of Marquette University fans don’t know a golden eagle from a northern goshawk. We can also assume Brett Favre didn’t know a golden eagle from an immature bald eagle when quarterbacking the University of Southern Mississippi.

“Golden eagle” sounds cool, and that’s all most folks know about avian predators. Sports fans, especially, don’t care that golden eagles are a distinct species, and that they’re seldom seen in southeastern Wisconsin or southern Mississippi, except maybe as rare strays in winter. These big birds were recently rare across all of Wisconsin, but they’ve become more common each winter in northwestern counties, as well as along the Mississippi River and southwestern Wisconsin.

Elsewhere, golden eagles live year-round from central Mexico to southern British Columbia. Other populations of golden eagles breed and nest each summer from Alaska to central Manitoba, and parts of far northern Ontario and Quebec. During winter, some migrate into the Appalachians and across much of the West; as well as parts of Iowa, Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas.

Golden eagles aren’t as distinctive as adult bald eagles, whose white heads and yellow beaks identify them near and far, even to the ornithologically challenged. Therefore, when a friendly guy from Cross Plains sent three photos of a darkly colored eagle with a bluish beak April 10, I balked when asked to identify it.

Shawn Verrier hunts deer and turkeys on a friend’s property northwest of Spring Green, and was surprised to find the eagle photos on one of his trail cameras. He thought it might be an immature bald eagle, and I didn’t argue.

But because we both lacked conviction, I emailed Verrier’s pictures to Ryan Brady, an ornithologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

“Definitely a golden eagle,” Brady responded. He also said the eagle was likely born last summer. The giveaways are a white base at the tail, and even brown coloration across the upper wing instead of a tawny mottling.

Not knowing when to quit, I sent Brady another eagle photo, which I thought was a golden eagle. After all, it too had brown feathers, and I photographed it in 2013 while hunting elk in Idaho near a large riverway. Again, though, I was wrong.

“That’s an immature bald eagle,” Brady wrote. “Goldens are rarely seen around waterways, and generally prefer uplands. Some, however, especially younger ones, hunt ducks in wetland complexes.”

Brady also said golden eagles remain uncommon in Wisconsin, but they’re no longer rare. The ones we see typically nest in arctic Canada from mid-May to early October, and then migrate here for winter. Their highest numbers usually occur in the hilly woodlands of the Driftless Area, while smaller numbers appear eastward into central Wisconsin. When migrating in spring and fall, golden eagles can be seen just about anywhere in the state, but they’re most rare in southeastern counties.

The National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minnesota, has conducted a golden eagle survey each January the past 16 years. The 190 citizen-scientists who participated Jan. 25 identified 119 golden eagles in southeastern Minnesota, eastern Iowa and western Wisconsin. Those one-day counts have ranged from 44 goldens in 2017 to 149 in 2016. This year’s census indicates 77% were adults and 23% were juveniles.

Their numbers are increasing for the same reason bald eagles are rising: federal protection under the Endangered Species Act starting in 1978, and a nearly 50-year ban on the pesticide DDT, which caused most eagle eggs to crack before their chicks could hatch. Although both species are no longer endangered, they remain protected by federal laws.

Verrier said his four trail cameras regularly photograph deer, turkeys and increasing numbers of bobcats. Besides the golden eagle, his rare photos include an albino buck and a large black bear. He’s unsure what the golden eagle was doing in the field, and estimated it was 5 yards from the camera.

Jennifer Stenglein, a DNR wildlife researcher, also oversees the agency’s “Snapshot Wisconsin” citizen-science survey. Stenglein said the statewide effort seldom photographs golden eagles because most of their cameras are placed inside woods and forests. In contrast, eagles spend most of their time hunting rabbits, squirrels, turkeys and even deer in open spaces.

Snapshot Wisconsin began in 2017, and currently has 1,756 volunteers monitoring 2,164 trail cams around the state to provide data to DNR biologists. The cameras have already snapped 39.4 million photos, which are examined by biologists and naturalists to identify the subjects.

Verrier said he understands why Snapshot Wisconsin has so many volunteers and cranks out millions of pictures. “I started with just one camera, but that wasn’t enough,” Verrier said. “Now I have four, and it’s always thrilling to pull the cards to see what’s on them. It’s fun because the cameras are always out there, 24-7, watching everything.

“I put them out this time of year to scout for turkeys, but I never know what else they’ll see,” Verrier continued. “I never expected that golden eagle photo. It might be the only one I ever get.”

A golden eagle flies low over a field in Oconto County in northeastern Wisconsin.

— Snapshot Wisconsin, DNR photo

This young golden eagle, above and below, was photographed near Spring Green in southwestern Wisconsin.Shawn Verrier photos

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