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NATURE HAPPENINGS - February 2004

Winter Eagles
by Damian Fagan

As the January inversion dissolves like a bad dream, we can once again see the high Wingate cliffs that surround Moab. Above these cliffs fly the ragged skeins of Canada geese as the birds move between the river and the now well fertilized high school soccer field. Joining the geese are golden eagles, ravens, red-tailed hawks, and a wintering peregrine falcon. Busier than a municipal airport, the aerial interactions would drive an air controller crazy.

I watch the eagles turn lazy circles over Swiss Cheese Ridge or the Portal, or dodge the harassing Stuka dives of ravens. Though the ravens seem outmatched by size and strength, they make up for it with daring movements, cocky attitudes, and sheer numbers - the noisy calls of the ravens attract others to join in the harassment.

The eagles seem to tolerate the ravens the way a horse tolerates flies. If the ravens become too bothersome, the eagles tilt their tail feathers and ride the thermals on a raven-free course. Similar to the bald eagle who may also be plagued with ravens, the eagles sometimes roll over onto their backs in mid-flight and present their talons to the offending ravens. Reason replaces valor at this point.

These birds do not share a symbiotic relationship, but they may, at times, rely upon the presence of the other. Flocks of ravens might indicate and help either eagle to locate roadkills. Goldens and balds are not above tearing into a dead elk or deer: feeding on carrion doesn’t require an extensive amount of energy.

On the other hand, I’ve watched an adult bald eagle try to make off with a rabbit, only to be harassed by ravens and other eagles. Even a coyote wandered into the action attracted by the flapping wings and screeches of protest. No scavenger was willing to give up this catch as it passed from beak to fang and back to beak again in a Three Stooges sort of way. I guess there really is no honor amongst thieves.

Antics aside, eagle watching in the month of February offers some excellent glimpses into the courtship behavior of these two species. Both perform spectacular aerial displays – courting bald eagles may lock talons and tumble earthward like an out-of-control meteor, only to separate shortly before they crash into the ground. Golden eagles may defend their territories with an undulating flight that resembles a roller-coaster ride. Though both may drive other birds of the same species from their territories, they seem to pay little attention to each other.

Southern Utah may not strike you as a bald eagle kind-of-place, but it can boast that 50% of the state’s bald eagle nests are located in Grand County. Sure that only amounts to two nests, but the claim rings true. A bigger boast would be that the state of Utah has the fourth largest wintering population of bald eagles in the lower 48 states, but the vast majority of those birds are found around the Great Salt Lake. On a recent road trip up the River Road (Highway 128), I observed seven bald eagles, while two of those birds represented the Cisco pair.

Two nest sites along the Colorado River in Utah have been active since 1983 and 1988, Cisco and Bitter Creek respectively. Nesting success varies each season. Some years, there was only one adult in either territory, their attempts to secure a mate going unfulfilled. One year the biologist monitoring the two nest sites thought that one male was responsible for both mates at the different nests. Located roughly 15 river miles apart, that male worked his tail off that season, but was also assisted by rafting companies dropping off carp and catfish on the riverbanks near one nest.

For several years I too monitored these nest sites. Twice a week I would visit each nest. I would hike to a favorable perch, set up my folding chair, rig up a spotting scope, pull out my notebook, and proceed to be entertained. Sure there were days when the eagle activity was like watching paint dry. The incubating bird would stand up, take a few turns in the nest, maybe roll the eggs over for even heating, and then sit back down. Meanwhile the other adult would sit on a nearby perch, preen their feathers or scan the territory for intruders. Of course, there were times when the second adult was off hunting, and I would never see that bird for several hours. Between moments of sheer boredom, I would scope out the courting red-tailed hawks or the newly arrived great blue herons. Mule deer drinking from the river, geese flying by at eye level, even the near constant gobbling of strutting toms would enliven my watching hours.

So to honor the bald eagle, Utah hosts a Bald Eagle Day in February. Though most events take place in northern Utah, this year the Moab Bird Club will host a slide show and field trip to observe wintering eagles. The Thursday night slide show will be on February 5 at the Moab Information Center at 7:00 p.m., and the field trip will take place on Saturday, February 7. The public is invited to come and learn more about the “white-headed sea eagle” who is a pirate, a scavenger, and happens to be our national symbol.

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