Tracking Golden Eagles Across Boundaries

29 June 2017
 
 
Tracking Golden Eagles Across Boundries

Story and photos by Janet Ng, posted on storify.com.  Follow @janetngbio


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I had an opportunity to help transmitter golden eagles w @hawkwatchint last wk.There's a 7 ft wingspan tucked into my arms. Stoke was HIGH!

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Day started off rainy,honestly like it could be a bust. We can't hike in badlands or process birds in the rain. So we drank coffee & waited.

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The rain slowed, so we surveyed a historical eagle territory looking for active nests. Didn't look promising, last observation was yrs ago..

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First historical nest was slumped, probably from erosion, no birds. Eagles have a few nests in their territories, switching every few yrs.

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Next historical nest, you can tell we weren't hopeful. But Jesse yells "there's a bird on that nest!" High fives all round. Time for work.

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Nest was on the side of a steep coulee (local lingo for dirt cliff). Parents were off hunting, prob rabbits. Look at that 8 wk old baby!

Now, importantly, can you spot the eagle baby on the giant nest?

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Time to gear up. @hawkwatchint brought climbing gear w them up from Utah, for exactly days like this when you need to rappel down cliffsides.

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I love working w collaborators w enormous skill sets. Eric Chabot w @hawkwatchint is an experienced climber, he prepped anchors (no trees!)

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Ton of prep goes into doing this safely for both the climber & bird. Note the rope, plus backup rope, climbing helmet, double anchor, etc.

 

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I staked a spot across from the nest, keeping an eye out for parents and the bird. Jesse was below, Steve was up top, Eric on his way down.

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Eric's descent was slow & steady He didn't want to startle the bird & he had a lot of climbing safety to keep in mind. Gorgeous view, hey?

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Eric takes a moment for the eagle baby to settle. I like this pic for size perspective. Nests get reno'd each year, so get bigger & bigger.

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Eric put a falconers hood on the bird to calm it, bags it, starts ascent. Eric started singing on his way up. To himself or bird, not sure.

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Jesse heads up from the bottom of coulee, to help w bird. Watching his step bc he already met a Prairie Rattlesnake who rattled a warning.

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These two having no fun at all. So boring prepping the measurement tools & transmitter, ugh.Note the high tech fishing tackle box.

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Jesse & Steve start to take measurements on the bird. Weight, leg width (shocker, it's huge), etc. Data can be used to assess health, etc.

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While very calm w hood on, you can't measure everything w a hood over his head. Eric measures head length, fingers near bitey end of bird.  People will tell you that raptors don't bite, that their business ends are their feet. While mostly true, this bird wanted to bite everyone.

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Lots of people are asking about feet. Eagle feet are huge & strong, w long talons for grabbing prey like jackrabbits. His talons = my thumb.  Feet would spontaneously open & close, so trick was to get your hands clear quickly. Getting footed (aka grasped) by a eagle = just don't.

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Another view of those tiny baby bird feetCheck out the shiny new @USFWS band on his leg. A unique serial number on band helps track birds

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Steve looks like he's having a moment w the bird, but he's actually checking the fit of the transmitter. Tags are <3% of bird weight.

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It takes a team. Three sets of hands making sure the bird is handled safely, tag attachment is perfect, & handling time is short as possible.

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Badlands field site, I'm in loveBadlands drop down into the grasslands, like a valley, where erosion has swept away earth, carving it out.

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The calm collected look on my face doesn't reflect my heart rate. He bucked in my arms & I basically bucked w him. So strong, so feisty.

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Once measured & tagged, the eagle is returned to his nest. Eric safely descends by rappel, not an easy task bc of super slick mud walls.

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Eric returns the bird & he's probably happy to be back in familiar surroundings. Look at how big that nest is, Eric is seriously tall too!

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I don't know what Eric is thinking, but I'm usually whispering good luck to the bird. Not an easy living for eagles out there, lots of risk.

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Eagle is safely tucked back in nest & Eric is almost on terra firma. Adult eagle, probably parent, flew over to check on things.

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Look at this golden eagle territory in southern Alberta, so happy this nest is in a protected area. Can you find the people in this pic?

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Here's a view of the baby eagle tucked back in his nest. So precious, but I'll refrain from gushing too much.

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So why golden eagles? Why study them? Why an international effort? If you've been following along (thanks), here's the most important part:

@hawkwatchint Golden eagles don't follow international boundaries. They have internal maps, but none with lines, those rules don't apply to them.

@hawkwatchint Eagles can migrate thousands of kilometres each year, where they encounter risk in all forms. Risk can mean starvation, injury, or death.

@hawkwatchint Eagles are still persecuted, so shot on sight. Or shot just for fun. Eagles will sometimes scavenge roadkill, so they get hit by cars.

@hawkwatchint Food levels can go up & down, it's hard to predict. Plus young eagles don't have the same hunting prowess like their parents, so can starve.

@hawkwatchint Electrocution risk is also a big one. Eagles have huge wingspan & like to perch on tall things like power poles, bad combo = high risk.

@hawkwatchint Habitat loss & degradation is a huge concern. Eagles need places to hunt & nest. Rarely are nests in protected areas like this one.

@hawkwatchint Extensive research shows that golden eagles don't like to be bothered, so whether it's OHVs, hikers getting too close, industrial activity.  Golden eagles will go out of their way to avoid human development & activity. It's bad for hunting, bad for nesting. But it's hard to avoid.

@hawkwatchint Eagles also like to hunt in places where they can catch some air, so windy places that make it easier to soar, hunt, do their thing.  Wind energy developments are looking for similar landscapes as eagles. Wide open, windy spaces. The potential for conflict is high.

@hawkwatchint There are many studies tracking eagles in the USA to understand this potential conflict, how to mitigate it, how to reduce the risk.  But again, eagles migrate. And they live in Canada. So this is the first international effort studying eagles in both Canada & the US.  This is part of a much larger collaborate project w many agencies involved, but @hawkwatchint just tagged 5 eagles in Canada.

@hawkwatchint These satellite transmitters will track birds, allowing scientists to study habitat, survival, & migration of these young vulnerable birds.  By monitoring from afar (remotely as these tags will upload via satellites & download to email), scientists will get a view of daily life.

@hawkwatchint It's not good enough to guess how these birds are doing. It's not good enough to think they aren't our responsibility if they cross borders.  Collaborative work like this is needed for all migratory birds. Winter habitat & migration paths are just as important as nesting habitat.  By tracking these birds, by learning about how they interact w their environment, we can learn what it'll take to protect this species.