Singer John Denver wrote in Rocky Mountain High, “I know he’d be a poor man if he never saw an eagle fly.” These notes ring true for those of us fortunate enough to see a bald eagle effortlessly soaring over some Adirondack mountaintop or sparkling lake. Bald eagles have made quite a recovery over the past several decades in the Adirondacks, but now I’d like to divert your attention to the the bald eagle’s cousin, the golden eagle.
The golden eagle has long been a source of inspiration, power, and mystery to humans and it shows up as the national symbol of many countries. The golden once flew in great numbers across North America but at this point in time it seems to be holding on to a limited western population and a scattered eastern population. The western population is found throughout the mountainous states from Mexico to Canada and into Alaska. East of the Mississippi it can be found in small pockets of the western Appalachian Mountains during winter, with a majority of the eastern eagles spending their summer breeding season in the regions of northeastern Canada and Maritime Islands.
To this day we still wonder if there was ever a healthy breeding population in the Adirondacks. Teddy Roosevelt stated, in an overview of his 1870’s trips to the Adirondacks: “The golden eagle probably occurs here.” It is believed that the last known nesting golden eagles in this area (around 1971) was found in the Moose River Plains area—a wonderful bird and wildlife watching area anytime of the year. There were also scattered reports of a nest around the Tupper Lake region. As previously mentioned, mystery often surrounds this bird of prey.
Well, slowly and methodically science is trying to pull back this veil of mystery. As this proceeds we get a better picture of the eastern population and, lo-and-behold, the Adirondacks often becomes an integral part of this eagle’s migratory pathways!
As late September blends into autumnal October the golden eagles of Northern Canada’s eastern provinces begin a determined southerly migration into the western Appalachian Mountains. These raptors will often complete a day’s journey of 100 miles or more with good tailwinds. As the estimated 200-300 eastern golden eagles come southward they are naturally funneled over the northeastern states and, as luck would have it, many goldens migrate directly over the Adirondacks.
Technology has played a major role in this investigation. Over the years, many golden eagles have been caught, and radio transmitters have been placed on the backs of these eagles. As the signal is given off by the moving transmitters they show up (via satellite) on “listening” computers and the eagle’s flight path is followed. Based on several mapping sites I found (here’s one), there is a distinct pattern of golden eagles flying over Franklin, Clinton, Jefferson, and St. Lawrence Counties during both fall and spring migration.
OK, now that we know they’re out there . . . what do we look for? As fall marches through October into November I would start looking at the sky when the winds are from the north or northwest. Get out into some open field or on a mountaintop that offers a wide, open view. Personally I like Coon Mountain, near Westport, or I’ll climb the accessible fire tower on Belfry Mt outside Mineville. Both offer some nice views of the Champlain Valley. Another good option is Azure Mt, off Blue Mt Road, northwest of Paul Smiths.
While up there I’ll look with my binoculars for migrating raptors and specifically I’ll focus on the many turkey vultures that are lazily soaring on the heated thermals coming off the valley below. Golden eagles can resemble turkey vultures in flight with a slight “V” shape to their up-turned wings. Most bald eagles and other bird of prey will fly with their wings straight (horizontal) out from their bodies. As you focus on these dark-colored birds, look closely at the wings and try to determine if there are white patches on the undersides of the outstretched wings and a black band on tip of the tail. If so then you may be looking at an immature golden eagle! As our only birdwatching president, Teddy Roosevelt, once said, “Bully for you!”
Photo: A golden eagle in flight.