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Now is the Time for a Rare Sighting of a Golden Eagle

posted Sep 19, 2016, 10:01 AM by Joseph Bickard

September 11, 2016 - Augusta-Any minute now, I’m going to receive a message from someone who wishes to report a golden eagle. I will be intrigued but skeptical.

It’s possible. The golden eagle is the most widespread eagle in the world. It resides across North America, Europe and Asia. Its breeding range even reaches into North Africa. It’s the official bird of countries as far apart as Mexico and Kazakhstan. It could be considered Maine’s rarest breeder, since a pair nested in Maine for much of the 20th century. Wabanaki tribal lore identifies another site in Maine where golden eagles nested for centuries. However, the most recent pair gave up on the state in 1997.

Young bald eagles often get mistaken for golden eagles. Bald eagles take five years to reach maturity, and the birds go through a series of plumage changes that confound birders. A fledgling begins life completely dark brown. It may look gilded in the golden light of a setting sun.

After the first year, young bald eagles acquire patches of white under the wings and tail that may appear similar to the more distinct patterns of a golden eagle. By their fourth year, bald eagles have taken on the basic color characteristics of an adult but still with some dark patches on the head. The eyes and beak of bald eagles even change color as the bird ages. A young bald eagle’s eyes are dark and turn yellow as the bird approaches maturity. The bill becomes more yellow with age.

Golden eagles get the name from a golden tinge that adorns the head and neck. It’s not easily apparent in a distant bird and sunlight can play tricks, so the appearance of a golden hue is perhaps the worst field mark for identifying these birds. Golden eagles also take four to five years to mature, but the color variation is less than occurs with bald eagles.

It’s the young eagles that particularly confuse people. Young bald and golden eagles both have white underneath, often in patterns that suggest each other. Fortunately, there is less variation in the pattern of golden eagles. The white patches underneath the wing tips are more defined. The white underneath the base of the tail contrasts sharply with the black along the tips of the tail. The white disappears as the eagle reaches maturity. At that point, it’s the all dark first-year bald eagle that can be confused with an all-dark adult golden eagle.

Relative size doesn’t help. Both eagles are roughly the same size, with a 6-foot wingspan. Geography affects size. Maine bald eagles are larger than Florida bald eagles. Eagles in Canada can be larger than our residents. So a migrating eagle of either species may seem a little larger than what we are used to seeing all summer.

Here are some other clues you likely will forget as soon as you put down the newspaper. I also forget such picky details. Golden eagles have smaller heads and beaks and slightly longer tails, giving the bird a more streamlined shape when soaring. Bald eagles soar with their wings straight out. Goldens soar with wings in a slight V-shaped dihedral, like turkey vultures, though not as pronounced. If viewed close up, all golden eagles have dark bills and eyes. Legs are feathered all the way to the toes. The legs of bald eagles are featherless.

Golden eagles prefer mountains and vast expanses. When they nested in Maine, it was in the state’s western and northwestern mountains. They will nest in trees but favor cliff ledges. They are common in the western states but have largely disappeared from their former nesting sites across New England and New York. They may have vanished because of changes in forest management or encroaching development, though they were never numerous to begin with. In the West, they almost exclusively rely on a diet of small mammals and thus suffered little from the effects of DDT toxicity. However, our eastern golden eagles needed to supplement their diets with wading birds and waterfowl, and tests conducted before they disappeared showed dangerous levels of DDT, PCBs and mercury.

Golden eagles still nest in Quebec and Labrador. As a result, they are spotted annually in Maine during migration season, which is now underway. Keep an eye out, but remember that sightings in Maine are rare. I’ve seen one in the last 30 years. I’ve seen scores of immature bald eagles that made me take a second look. That’ll happen again any moment now.

Bob Duchesne, Bangor Daily News, September 2016