Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)
By Mark Welter
In Indiana, Bald Eagles get all the love. And why not? They are America’s national bird, majestic in flight, easily recognizable even by non-birders, and the story of their comeback from the brink of extinction in the 1970s is an inspiration. One of my earliest birding memories is going on a field trip with my Dad to see the Bald Eagles that wintered on Lake Monroe – Indiana had no resident eagle population back then – and the group we were with was thrilled to see a half-dozen of them at considerable distance. Fast-forward to 2014, when I accompanied an Indiana Audubon group on an eagle watch in Union County, and we counted 96 Bald Eagles coming off their roost in the early morning. In my lifetime, the Bald Eagle has gone from being a rare and special find, to being so common that I almost don’t bother to look up at them when I’m out birding. Almost. But I always do, because once in awhile, that big dark bird I’ve noticed turns out to be Indiana’s other eagle.
Golden Eagles are generally known as the apex aerial predator of the American West, but there exists an eastern population of these birds that breeds in northern Canada and winters in the Appalachians, as well as parts of Illinois, Kentucky, and yes, Indiana. While there are a handful of sites around the state where Goldens can be found somewhat reliably in the dead of winter, I have had my best luck encountering them during migration – especially in early spring, as they follow large flocks of waterfowl and cranes headed northward. I have had the good fortune of seeing at least one Golden Eagle annually in the state since getting my lifer in 2014 (on the aforementioned Union County trip); the areas around Cane Ridge WMA and Goose Pond FWA have provided the majority of those sightings. Knowing where and when to expect Golden Eagles is important. Equally important is learning how to recognize what you’re seeing, when you see one.
Golden Eagles often get confused with immature Bald Eagles, but those similarities are superficial at best. The fact is, that even though both Bald and Golden are nominally “eagles,” they are not closely related, and are very different birds in terms of physical characteristics and behavior. A good treatise on differentiating Bald and Golden Eagles can be found at: https://www.audubon.org/news/is-golden-eagle-actually-bald-eagle
The tawny nape feathers from which the Golden Eagle gets its name are present in all ages, and are a good field mark when visible (in good light, they are noticeable even at extreme range). Golden Eagles will present as all-dark, with immature birds showing defined white patches in the secondaries and at the base of the tail. Immature Bald Eagles are much “dirtier,” with varying amounts of white in the wings, belly, head and tail, especially after the first year.
The flight patterns of Bald and Golden Eagles are quite distinctive, due to their differing lifestyles. I often say that “Golden Eagles are built to kill; Bald Eagles are built to go ‘Man, that looks an awful lot like work.’” Golden Eagles are active hunters, taking a range of mammalian and avian prey using a variety of techniques, and consequently, their flight is more energetic than that of the Bald Eagle, which eats primarily fish and carrion. Simply put, in level flight, Golden Eagles always look like they are going somewhere. I have also seen them course low over hilly terrain like a Northern Harrier, and fold their wings and stoop on a flock of ducks like a Peregrine, dropping hundreds of feet in seconds – a maneuver I’ve never seen a Bald Eagle even attempt! When soaring, Golden Eagles hold their wings in a slight dihedral reminiscent of a Turkey Vulture, but without the drunken, rocking motion. Bald Eagles, in contrast, hold their plank-like wings straight and level when soaring, and also appear larger-headed than Goldens, due to their massive bill.
Once you have seen both of Indiana’s eagles in person under field conditions, you will likely not confuse them again. But keep paying close attention to every large, dark raptor you see (as my friend Brian Cunningham says, “Bird every bird”)! If the time and place are right, who knows? You might be rewarded with a “Golden” opportunity.