Golden eagles, until recently thought be rare or accidental visitors to the Driftless area of Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, have been shown to be predictable winter residents of those scenic bluffs and valleys.
Participants in wintering golden eagle surveys, conducted one day a year since 2005 under the auspices of the National Eagle Center in Waubasha, Minn., regularly have counted more than 100 golden eagles in those states’ rugged blufflands.
Most have been observed in Minnesota and Wisconsin, but scientists believe that may be, at least in part, because most of the counting occurs there, rather than in Iowa, where Lansing residents Ric and Betty Zarwell have often been the only survey participants.
“I think the actual numbers are much greater than recognized in the survey,” said Ric Zarwell, who has organized a Jan. 11 seminar in Decorah to recruit and train participants for the tricky task of identifying goldens and thus to greatly expand the number of Iowa participants in the annual count, to be held Jan. 18.
“We’re trying to recruit Iowa birders to participate, but it takes some specialized training” to identify likely haunts and to distinguish golden eagles from other raptors, especially immature bald eagles, he said.
“Bald eagles stand out. Golden eagles blend in. The key to finding them is knowing where to look,” said survey coordinator Scott Mehus, education director at the National Eagle Center and the presenter at the upcoming Decorah training session.
Mehus said he has long wanted to increase the number of observers in Iowa.
“I think they are probably as common in northeast Iowa as they are in southeast Minnesota. The terrain is similar in both areas,” he said.
Creatures of habit, the goldens often can be found sitting on the same branch of the same tree year after year, Mehas said.
Zarwell said he and his wife have had their best luck along south-facing, cedar tree-covered slopes in the Upper Iowa River valley.
Positive identification, he said, almost always requires the use of optical equipment.
“You just don’t get that close to them. They are warier and less tolerant of people than the bald eagle,” he said.
During the first survey, 24 observers counted 21 goldens. Last year, 160 observers counted a record 132 goldens, according to Mehus.
With more routes in Iowa, stretching from Dubuque to the Minnesota border, that number could increase again this year, he said.
Raptor expert Jon Stravers of McGregor said he long has been aware of golden eagles wintering in the wild wooded hills of the Yellow River State Forest-Effigy Mounds National Monument complex that straddles the border of Clayton and Allamakee counties.
“This isn’t something that just came up. This has been going on for eons,” he said.
Stravers credited Mehus with lifting the veil of mystery surrounding wintering golden eagles.
“He’s got a line on them – same bluff, same tree,” he said.
Stravers described the golden as “a fearless predator,” known to attack the bigger and stronger wild turkey.
Terry Haindfield, a Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist in northeast Iowa, can attest to that.
During a spring turkey hunt in 1995, Haindfield, while hidden in a blind, said a golden eagle “came right at me at eye level with talons outstretched” and shredded a foam turkey decoy standing seven yards in front of his blind.
The National Eagle Center is part of an on-going project to better understand the habitat use, winter ecology and natural history of wintering golden eagles. Using satellite-linked GPS technology to track this species, the project has also discovered some of the birds’ migration patterns and far north breeding sites.
The free, four-hour golden eagle education program (no registration required) starts at 11 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 11, at the Decorah Public Library.