The (golden) eagle has landed!
Yep, I’m not kidding. For a few stalwart birders who have braved our cold, rainy spring, the reward has been the sighting of a Golden Eagle right here on South Whidbey.
Unfortunately I can’t count myself in that group.
Golden Eagles stake out large territories and breed throughout the western United States. They inhabit the eastern Cascades and dry shrub-steppe of eastern Washington, but they are uncommon even there. Occasionally, they are seen in the San Juan Islands.
The only chance we have to spot this species here on Whidbey is when one wanders off course and visits briefly. Birders call these “accidentals.”
In the past, I’ve pretty much ignored the supposed sightings of Golden Eagles because they are easily confused with the mottled, dark-headed and dark-tailed juvenile Bald Eagles, which are very common here. My eyes roll back in my head and I begin to fidget when
I hear reports of a big eagle with mottled plumage that MUST be a Golden Eagle. Those always turn out to be false alarms.
Earlier this spring, rumors started again about Golden sightings. When an Audubon field trip lead by two excellent bird watchers spotted one, my ears pricked up.
Then, last Thursday (April 7) at around 10:45 a.m. Tillie Scruton and her sister Sophie confirmed a Golden Eagle at Deer Lagoon. I’ve birded with Tillie and greatly admire her observation and identification skills.
In her e-mail, Tillie described their sighting:
“[The Golden Eagle] was perched on a protuberant piece of driftwood on the east side of the west dike. We could clearly see a blond head and dark breast (not a mottled breast like some of the immature balds). It didn’t look quite right to be an immature bald, but it was about that size. It preened some, and in the process turned this way and that, so we could see the back of its blond head. Then some crows discovered it, and, having no peace, it took flight and flew closer to us.
I kept the binoculars on it so I could make note of the patterns under its wings. There was white on the underside of the wings, but only at that window just inboard of the primaries, near where the wing bends. It disturbed a heron, and of course all the crows, when it took off. It flew west til we lost track of it.”
When Tillie and Sophie returned home, they compared their observations to her bird book.
“When we got home we looked it up in Sibley, and the pictures matched what we saw. For me the thing that made it look NOT like an immature bald was the blond head, and how dark and rich-brown the breast was when it was sitting there. I’ve never seen that gold-brown color on the head of an immature bald before. Altogether, the young bald eagles look a little grayish and washed-out, to me, in comparison. And sort of mottled. Flying, the white patches under the wings were distinct on the golden.”
How could I possibly doubt a detailed observation like that?
The eagle they saw at Deer Lagoon appeared to be a juvenile or sub-adult Golden Eagle as indicated by the presence of those white “window panes” near the end of the wings. The adults of this species lose the white, and the wings become a rich dark brown overall. Also, the adults have golden (blondish) feathers on the leading edges of their wings and on their feathered legs.
Tillie’s description of how the eagle flew out of sight, “It flew west til we lost track of it,” reminded me of how some groups of southwest Native Americans view this bird. Since the Golden Eagle spirals upward until it is lost to our sight, the early peoples believed the eagles flew up through a hole in the sky to the home of the Sun.
With its golden feathers, this bird symbolizes the sun and the summer season. Whereas, the Bald Eagle, with its snowy white head, represents winter and the rainy season.
The natives of the dry southwest attributed more strength to the Bald Eagle, because they relished the infrequent rain.
Does that mean we can blame the Bald Eagles for all our rain? Does the appearance of a Golden Eagle indicate our weather will change? We’ll just have to wait and see.
No matter what the weather, the chances of seeing a Golden Eagle on south Whidbey are pretty high right now. Let’s all keep an eye out and report any sightings to me.
And, dear readers, let’s make a pact. Instead of thinking any old eagle out there that doesn’t have a white head and tail is a Golden Eagle, look for the three identifying characteristics that Tillie noted:
• Blond or golden highlights on head;
• Overall chocolate brown body;
• White windows in wings (present in sub-adult birds).
Since we all now know the differences between the Golden Eagles and the immature Bald Eagles,
I won’t get any more false alarms. Right?
Give me five!
Frances Wood is the author of “Brushed by Feathers: A Year of Birdwatching in the West.” For more bird information and to contact Frances, visit her web site www.franceswood.net.