While relaxing over a cup of coffee, I think back to some unexpected events that have occurred on a recent outing. Yesterday I was on a bird watching tour along the Colorado River near Burns and I was hosting an enthusiastic group of five birders from Chicago.
With six pairs of eyes combing the landscape I hear a shout from the backseat, “Stop, I see and eagle!” I pull the car over and we are on a bank overlooking the Colorado River. “I saw a white tail and it’s walking on the ground,” the excited birder exclaims.
Hmm, I thought. An eagle with a white tail suggests a bald eagle, but generally bald eagles are here only during the winter. Could we have some new summer resident bald eagles along the Colorado River?
While scanning and focusing on the opposite hillside with my binoculars, I suddenly hear a guttural “whoa!” come from my companions. I lower my binoculars and my jaw drops as a seven-foot wingspan of a golden eagle soars ten feet over our heads. “There are two eagles!” my friends cheer jubilantly.
Then the other eagle emerges from behind a tree, glides across the river, and lands on a rocky slope. As it flew by we could clearly see a white band on its tail, which tells us that it is an immature golden eagle that has not yet reached its adult plumage.
I put this eagle in the spotting scope and we could see the intense look and sparkle in its eye. The temperature was in the mid-eighties and the eagle rested in the shade with its mouth open and its tongue sticking out as if it was panting. This observation suggests that this is s way that an eagle can lose excess body heat.
We all took turns peering through the scope at this magnificent creature that was giving us such a fabulous show. Large raindrops began to fall and forced us all back into the car. As we pulled away we noticed a large pile of bunny fur on the road, but no bunny. It seemed the eagles had nailed a rabbit, and took it to the safety of cover across the river to consume it.
Wow! That was quite a show, a pair of golden eagles sharing this magnificent landscape with us. We drove another couple of miles and I pulled over at one of my favorite birding hot spots. We were surrounded with great diversity with the river, a steep slope with spruce, Douglas fir, cottonwood, shrubs, and towering cliffs above which had a half-dozen turkey vultures perched waiting out the passing clouds.
After a few minutes of looking around, a keen observer noticed a large-bodied bird high on the hillside concealed amongst some dead limbs. I turned my scope onto him and couldn’t believe my eyes. A white head and a white tail-now this was a bald eagle.
The bird then took flight and we all got a perfect view as it glided across the slope to another dead tree further down stream. I turned my scope onto the distant tree, and again couldn’t believe my eyes. There perched in the tree was a second bald eagle in adult plumage.
It takes about three to four years for a bald eagle to attain the pure white head and tail of an adult. Although I didn’t see a nest, this sighting suggests that we may have nesting bald eagles here in Eagle County—a very cool thing.
The bald eagle sighting is an example of how there are no hard and fast rules in nature. Even though field guides will tell you that bald eagles should be here only during winter, our field observations say otherwise.
Similarly, last summer I stood over a freshly killed river otter on Highway 24 near Camp Hale. Books say they aren’t here, veteran fly-fishing guides have never seen them, yet there I was staring into it’s whiskered face.
It feels good to know that there are wild places here in Eagle County that are free of pollution and development that can support these magnificent wildlife species.
Tom and Tanya Wiesen are owners of Trailwise Guides; a year-round Vail Valley guide service specializing in hiking, mountain biking, and natural history tours. Daily private tours are available. Contact Trailwise Guides at (970) 827-5363.