Golden Eagle Trapping in The Driftless

By RRP Director John Howe

The Raptor Resource Project began a Golden Eagle research study in January of 2022. We are monitoring wintering Golden Eagles in the Driftless Area to learn more about their movement on their winter and summer range with potential nest locations, seasonal migration patterns and timing, and route fidelity. Research is being conducted under the guidance and permits of RRP’s Jeff Worrell, former director of the National Eagle Center, and raptor biologist Brett Mandernack. This year we trapped two Golden Eagles, one mature female and one immature female, and fit them with satellite transmitters to learn more about these mysterious winter visitors! We have a little more information about Golden Eagles here:

Head profile. Note the distinct golden nape.

Head profile. Note the distinct golden nape.

Golden Eagles are one of the world’s largest eagles. Shorter but heavier than Bald Eagles, adult and immature eagles are a rich chocolate brown, with feathered or ‘booted’ legs, a lustrous golden nape, and long black talons that look like meat hooks. They are remarkably elusive for such large birds, but a sharp observer might spot one or two in the bluffs and steeply wooded draws of the Driftless. Our Board and I were thrilled when Jeff Worrell and Brett Mandernack proposed a Golden Eagle research project last year, especially since little is known about the eastern Golden Eagle population wintering in the Upper Midwest. After a year of planning to determine transmitter type, locating trapping sites, securing lure birds, and refining capture technique, we assembled a trapping team and went to work under Jeff’s expert leadership.

John Howe with the first eagle we trapped

John Howe with the first eagle we trapped

I’ve helped capture fledgling eagles from the Decorah nest, but Golden Eagle trapping in the Driftless is a very different ballgame. We trap from January to early March, which means serious cold and deep snow. Golden Eagles prefer goat prairie, which means steep hikes up icy hillsides, usually in the dark. Jeff put a lot of detective work into finding Golden Eagles, but the species isn’t especially common or predictable, which means a challenging pre-dawn hike in subzero weather might be followed by a day of sitting and hoping that an eagle shows up. But all the hard work makes success all the more rewarding, as I learned the day we captured our first Golden Eagle.

Collecting data: Brett Mandernack measures a Golden Eagle's hallux claw

Collecting data: Brett Mandernack measures a Golden Eagle’s hallux claw

It was January 13 and Erik Murry, Amy Ries, and I were up on a ridge top where we had seen at least five Golden Eagles soaring the day before, training our binoculars and spotting scope on the trapping station ¾-mile distant. Jeff was watching another station on a south-facing goat prairie not too far away. The winter air was as hazy as it could be, but we had good visibility as we looked for Golden Eagles and watched Bald Eagles soaring in the distance and occasionally riding a draft up one of the valleys over the ridge. Time inched along and Amy joined Jeff at the goat prairie station for the afternoon. Raptor trapping requires a lot of attention, even when nothing is going on. All of the action can happen quickly and if you are not paying attention, you missed it!

Jeff Worrell and Amy Ries unhooding and releasing the first Golden Eagle.

Jeff Worrell and Amy Ries unhooding and releasing the first Golden Eagle.

After hours of watching, we had yet to see our first Golden Eagle. Erik and I were envisioning how a capture would play out. Over and over again, we imagined a Golden Eagle seeing our lure turkey(s) and diving in for a winter meal, as if talking about a Golden Eagle could call one in. Erik’s 2:00 departure time came and he talked himself into another 15 minutes, just in case we got lucky.

At about 2:10, Jeff and Amy’s radios lit up with reports of a possible Golden Eagle making its way up the valley. We kept our binoculars focused and soon saw what had to be an eagle soaring up the valley and toward the top of the ridge. Was that a Bald Eagle? There was no white tail or white head on this bird! Our hearts started to race, and we had a feeling that this could be it! This would only be the second Golden Eagle trapped and released in the Driftless Area since Jeff captured the first, years ago.

Erik Murray with the first eagle we trapped

Erik Murray with the first eagle we trapped.

Erik and I watched as the eagle made its way over and started dropping towards the bow net. I quickly reached for the transmitter and powered it on in case this was the moment. It circled around and made a pass about 20 feet over the bow-net before we lost track of it. Where did it go? What happened? We radioed our quick report to Jeff and Amy, still focused on the station for any movement, but saw nothing. Our pulses dropped half-way back to normal as we chatted in amazement about what a close call it was. At least we had seen a golden today!

Sarah Howe with the second Golden Eagle we trapped

Sarah Howe with the second Golden Eagle we trapped.

Erik decided to stick around another five minutes since we did not want to move around or step out of the truck in case the eagle was still around! Even though we didn’t trap it, we were happy and excited to have seen an eagle and considered it a good sign for the coming week. I turned the bow net trigger off and we started talking about where it could have gone. Jeff confirmed our plan to stay put and I could almost see a smile on his face, because he knew how close we had come to trapping our first Golden Eagle. Erik had a drink of apple juice and I started putting a few items in my bag. We glanced up at the station to say our final goodbyes and Erik yelled “Golden approaching”! I looked closer and saw two black dots on the snowy white slope. Erik yelled again “Golden at the net!” and I switched the trigger back ON and pressed the trigger button. We had a Golden Eagle!

Collecting data: Wingspan measurement

Collecting data: Wingspan measurement.

What happened next was nothing short of a Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom trip with Jim Fowler. Erik put his truck in gear and we sped to the net, apple juice and chips launching in the air and bouncing all around the truck. We stopped abruptly at the net and Erik dashed out and kneeled over the eagle, securing its legs and powerful talons while I grabbed the hood. I slowly reached under the hoop and net and secured the hood over its head. Erik freed the eagle from under the net and transferred it to me. Was this for real? We both were deeply engaged in the moment, in awe of this incredibly beautiful and powerful Golden Eagle and excited for Jeff and Amy to arrive for the next step. We admired its golden nape, beautiful eyes, powerful beak, and bone-crushing talons. It was an experience we will never forget.

I had the opportunity, or I should say honor, to hold and secure this northern visitor as we transported it to the River Valley Raptor garage. Once we got there, Brett and Ryan would weigh it, measure it, and fit it with a transmitter to link our eagle and human worlds for the next several years. In the meantime, I could feel the warmth of the eagle against my chest. She was relaxed and laid her head across my cheek. At that moment, I felt like time could just stop… at least until this raptor’s release back into the bluffs of the Driftless Area the following day.