Eagle County. Eagle River. Why are they named so? Because there are lots of eagles that live here. Where to look depends on whether you’re looking for a Golden Eagle or a Bald Eagle. In winter, they both live here. Golden Eagles like mountains and cliffs, while Bald Eagles like river courses. Consciously look, and you will see them. Bring your binoculars, and keep them handy in the glove box of your car, so you’re always ready.
To find eagles, you have to know what to look for, and when. Generally speaking, Bald Eagles are here only in the winter and spring. To find Bald Eagles, drive to your nearest large river. The Eagle River, the Colorado River, or the Arkansas River all do nicely. Look in the limbs of cottonwood trees or near the tops of very large pines for blotches of white that stand apart from the landscape. Bald Eagles have long white heads, and big white tails which stand out. Balds measure about 30 inches tall, and weigh 9 1/2 pounds. Their wingspan is almost 7 feet. Imagine the energy it takes to keep a beast of this weight in flight. Therefore, Balds must conserve energy. Bald Eagles are indeed serious avian raptors who patiently play the waiting game. A bald sits, waits, and watches, for a very long time. When the perfect opportunity presents itself, Balds react with grace.Utilizing precise telescopic vision and neck-break speed, the eagle swoops down snatching a fish, a duck, or a mammal. Balds inflict a high-speed, talon-clenching-piercing- tearing, bone-snapping blow to its prey. If more force is required still, the spine-severing, meat-tearing bill is employed. Look for Balds where there is more open water, and less ice, on the river. Look for Balds in the tops of snags (standing dead trees). If you drive slowly along the Eagle River from Gypsum to Minturn, and you’re watching closely, you should see several Bald Eagles. When you spot one, stay in your car and view them with binoculars. If you are fairly close by, and get out of your car, you will probably spook them. The Eagles are conserving energy in the winter, so it’s best not to make them fly off.
A spotting scope on a full-sized tripod is handy because the magnification is much higher than binoculars. You can be farther away from the bird or animal, yet get a close up view without disturbing the wildlife. A spotting scope is a great toy. It costs a chunk of change, but is right in line cost-wise with tele skis, kayaks, or mountain bikes. A good scope will last a lifetime, and can help provide countless intimate experiences with birds and animals. The view through the scope often makes the difference between positively identifying and observing a species, or stuck with, “I can’t quite tell.” To see the sparkle in its eye, the ripples in its muscles, or the glistening light off of its feathers, use a scope. Wildlife and bird watching is way better with a scope. Buy a bomber full-sized tripod.
Now, getting back to the Golden Eagles, arguably North America’s fiercest and most aggressive avian raptor. Known to knock mountain goat kids and bighorn lambs off of precarious cliffs. We’re talking one big bully here. Goldens rule year-round from high crags, tops of sheer cliffs, and from perches on prominent rock outcrops. Goldens want meat. “Meat, meat, meat,” is all they can think about. I generally sight Goldens in three ways; in soaring flight, perched, or on a carcass. When I see a Golden on a road kill, it’s startling just how big they are. 30 or more inches tall, 10 pounds, and a 7 foot wingspan. Remember all of the bone crushing options of the Bald, same with Golden, but with more force still.
Goldens like to soar. Soaring; as in not flapping the wings, not once, for a very long time. Wings spread wide with fingers apart (primaries), soaring, soaring, on a thermal. A thermal can be described as the sun’s warmth on a mountainside causing hot air to rise creating an updraft effect. The Golden just sticks out those massive wings and takes the free hot-air elevator to a nice high elevation for a better view. Or, another option with the thermal, is to take the rippin’ high-speed flight across the rock face. Using built-in telescopic high-resolution vision to comb the landscape for unsuspecting prey, the Golden is like a war machine. Imagine the striking power of 10 pounds at 50 miles per hour, hitting its unsuspecting prey in the back of the neck. Not to mention the piercing talons, meat-tearing hooked bill, etc. Goldens often hunt in pairs. One flushes the bunny, the other one snags it. Goldens hunt rabbits, coyotes, newborns of all large mammals, fox, hares, marmots, and more. Both Bald and Golden Eagles eat a lot of carrion (carcasses of already dead animals).
How do you tell the difference between a Bald and Golden while in flight, while not seeing its colors? Look at the wing profile. Wing profile can be defined as looking at the bird soaring from directly in front, or from directly in back. Goldens hold their wings while soaring in a slight dihedral (V- shape). Balds, on the other hand, keep their wings flat while soaring. Also, look at the length of the head. Balds have really long heads that stick way forward from the front of their wings. Goldens heads, on the other hand, barely protrude in front of their wings. You can judge head length by comparing it to the length of its tail. A Bald’s head sticks out greater than 1/3 the length of its tail, a Golden’s head sticks out less than 1/3 the length of its tail.
When you see the color as the bird goes overhead, if it’s got a white head and a white tail, it’s a Bald. If it’s mottled browns and golds, and has a banded tail, it’s a Golden. If it’s mottled browns and golds, and has white “windows” on its “wrists”, it’s an immature Golden. If it’s blotchy white and brown, long-headed, gangly, and unattractive overall, it’s an immature Bald. It takes 4-5 years for Balds to acquire full adult plumage. In both species of eagles, females are larger than the males. Long lived, eagles can live up to 20 years in the wild.
Reduce false alarms with ravens or vultures posing as eagles. Ravens sometimes soar, but they spend the bulk of their time flapping their wings hard and fast. Sing the song, “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the steam, merrily, merrily, merrily…” at a fairly fast clip, and now you’ve got the wingbeat of a raven. In contrast, an eagle has seven feet of wings to flap. Instead, think, “whoosh”, like a giant fan, “whoosh”. The eagle’s wingbeat is slow and powerful. Also, if it’s black and gray in color, it’s not an eagle. It’s a raven or a vulture. Vultures occur here only in the summer. Vultures keep their wings in a sharp dihedral (V-shape), and constantly tilt back and forth while in flight.
Look for, and find, Bald Eagles along the Eagle River especially from Edwards to Gypsum. Occasionally, I see Balds in Minturn, and have seen Balds as high up as the Homestake Valley above Red Cliff. Look for Balds anywhere along the Colorado River from above State Bridge downstream to Dotsero.
Goldens live in all of the major drainages out of East Vail. You can frequently see Goldens soaring above the Vail Mountain School at the entrance to the Booth Creek drainage. If you snowshoe up Gore Creek, watch for the Goldens soaring along the sunny, rocky, crags high on your left. Look for Goldens near the cliffs outside of Minturn, on Battle Mountain, or above Red Cliff. Look for, and see, many Goldens perched on cliffs from Wolcott to State Bridge. Look for Goldens along I-70 anywhere from Wolcott westward to the state line and beyond.
Here we are in Eagle County. It’s just full of eagles. Remember to look.
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.