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#bioPGH blog: Golden Leaves Mean Golden Eagles
Oct 07

#bioPGH blog: Golden Leaves Mean Golden Eagles

By Dr. Maria Wheeler-Dubas, Science Education and Research Outreach Coordinator

Biophilia NetworkA resource of Biophilia: Pittsburgh, #bioPGH is a weekly blog and social media series that aims to encourage both children and adults to reconnect with nature and enjoy what each of our distinctive seasons has to offer. From the best times to plant seasonal flora and enjoy their peak blooms, to astronomical events and creatures to keep an eye and ear out for, Phipps will keep you in the know with what’s going on in our environment!

When leaves start turning from summer greens to golds and reds, you might want to reach for your binoculars and look to the skies. If you are interested in seeing majestic creatures that pass through Pennsylvania twice a year, we’re now approaching the perfect season to spot them. It might mean you will have to brave a bit of rugged terrain to reach a hawk watch location, but you just might catch a glimpse of…golden eagles.

Yes, golden eagles, eastern North America’s best-kept open secret! Though the exact population size is unknown, an estimated 5000 golden eagles nest in eastern Canada, largely in Quebec, Labrador and Ontario. They have been overshadowed in the past by their more abundant cousins in western North America. In fact, until the 1930’s, their presence on this side of the continent wasn’t even documented—bird watchers assumed they were observing juvenile bald eagles. However, the last ten years have ushered in a focused interest just in these eastern birds with researchers across the continent trying to determine population size, migratory routes, and their conservation status.

You might be wondering, if golden eagles are from Canada, how do they end up in our area? Well, that is mostly due to their migration routes. A relatively narrow stretch of the Appalachians serves as an important migratory corridor for golden eagles and other raptors (birds of prey). As autumn sweeps across the landscape, Canadian goldens begin traveling southwards down the Appalachians and disperse throughout eastern US, with some birds staying in Northeastern states—including Pennsylvania—and some birds even continuing as far south as Alabama.

If you are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a golden eagle, whether in migration or wintering, how can you tell you tell it apart from juvenile bald eagles, who lack the distinctive white heads and white tail feathers of adults? In flight, it will be tricky as both species utilize thermal updrafts and rising winds along ridge lines, meaning they essentially could be flying in similar places. While flying, though, golden eagles hold their wings in the slightest “V” shape, in contrast to bald eagles that appear flat as a board. A few key differences in bodily appearance include the tawny-golden patch of feathers adult golden eagles sport on the back of their heads and goldens’ “booted” legs, meaning feathering goes all the way down to their feet. The best thing, though, is to visit a hawk watch location and talk to the volunteers who spend entire days on ridge tops, observing the birds’ flight patterns, silhouettes, and migration timing. It’s a great way to learn about birds and connect with local naturalists!

Connecting to the Outdoors Tip: If you live in Pittsburgh, the best place to see golden eagles is the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch in Somerset County.  Depending on weather, their migration will take them through the area mid-October to mid-November. As of this post’s publishing time, ten golden eagles have already passed by the Allegheny Front this season, and five have gone by Hawk Mountain out in eastern Pennsylvania. Just don't forget your hiking boots!

Allegheny Front Hawk Watch 
Hawk Mountain 
Golden Eagle Status Assessment
Golden Eagle Unique Migration Pattern
Golden Eagles: Seasonal variation in flight conditions 
FWS Golden Eagle Fact Sheet 


Photos © Wikimedia User: Adamantios (CC-BY-SA-3.0) and Dcrjsr (CC-BY-3.0)