I finally decided on heading up north to the Brrrrdathon since it was the inaugural year for that event, if you missed last weeks Brrrdathon post you can see it here. Fortunately the National Eagle Center offers several afternoon seminars on how to spot and identify golden eagles prior to the survey. So I decided to head down to join the final seminar on January 8th.
The seminar consists of about an hour of classroom training on identifying golden eagles, which was redundant for me since I have been to the seminar two times in previous years, and then a couple hours out in the field looking for the eagles. The seminar is led by Scott Mehus from the NEC who runs the annual survey and has watched and studied these birds for years. Scott knows these golden eagles very well and your best chance to get a good look at these birds, at least in southern Minnesota and Wisconsin, is when you are out with him.
We headed out from Wabasha over the Mississippi and into Wisconsin. We continued east, away from the river, and into the interior hilly areas. We were looking for goat hills, like the ones pictured above. Goat hills are south west facing hills that get more sun; which evaporates more of the moisture leaving less for trees, bushes and other vegetation. The eagles use these goat hills to hunt, squirrels, rabbits and wild turkey. We made our way through the countryside looking at goat hills and we saw several golden eagles perched far away in the distance. I was a little discouraged because they were much to far away to get a good picture.
As it was getting close to 4:00 Scott headed our caravan to a special spot where he had recently had good luck getting close views of the eagles. With the sun getting low in the sky we pulled over next to a small hill on a county road in the middle of rural Wisconsin. We got out of the cars, out into the cold winter air, and waited. After about 10 minutes some people decided to leave but those of us who road with Scott wanted to stay just a little bit longer. About 5 minutes later an adult golden eagle came floating over the hill. We watched as she soared over head and then across the valley to the hills on the other side. We were then amazed and ecstatic as she came back across the valley and flew over head again this time carrying a stick in her beak. Scott told us that he had witnessed this behavior before and he thought that it may be some sort of mating ritual that prepares them for nesting. Golden eagles do not nest in this area but there do seem to winter here in pairs.
I headed home that day with some of the best golden eagle pics that I have ever taken, including the first two eagle pics. Two weeks later, on a beautiful sunny Sunday, I decided to spend my day heading down the river. After photographing common mergansers and other ducks in Redwing, MN and a beautiful pair of bald eagles in Lake City, MN I decided to head over to Wisconsin. I located the spot where we had seen the golden eagles during the seminar and I waited. After waiting about an hour and a half a golden eagle finally came flying over the hill, this time even closer then before, and I took even better eagle pics, like the bottom two. It was just about 4:00 pm again, which proved Scott's point that these golden eagles were very much creatures of habit. I waited around a little while after the eagle disappeared over the hill, hoping that it would fly over again but with the sun going down I decided to head hope happy with the great shots that I had.