In cold-weather months, golden eagles soar high above Virginia’s western mountains.

In 2010, when Jeff Cooper became part of a newly formed research group created to study golden eagles in eastern North America, he didn’t expect to be surprised. “I kind of discounted the project in the beginning as a waste of time,” he admits. 

Majestic high-flyers and powerful predators, golden eagles are a well-known presence in the western part of the continent, but a smaller population of golden eagles inhabits the eastern U.S. and Canada. However, very little was known about these birds when the Eastern Golden Eagle Working Group (EGEWG), a partnership of American and Canadian biologists and wildlife managers, launched its project. Cooper joined the group in his role as wildlife biologist and avian project coordinator for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), but he was skeptical that his own state would figure significantly in the group’s findings. At the time, he says, “We thought of the golden eagle as a ‘vagrant,’” only occasionally seen in Virginia. 

What the EGEWG found, then, was unexpected. In the winter, in Virginia, not only are the birds present, but they are present “consistently and abundantly in the mountains,” says Cooper. In fact, he says, the EGEWG’s research has determined that Virginia is a vitally important habitat. The birds’ summer nesting grounds are located in Canada. But the remote, wooded, mountainous region straddling the West Virginia border turns out to be “the core of the eastern population’s wintering area,” says Cooper. “They spend almost half their life-cycle here in the wintertime, so what happens here can potentially have a huge impact on the population.” 

These facts are part of a significant body of entirely new information gathered through the EGEWG’s work. A key component of the research has been the capture and release of some 40 golden eagles, which have been fitted with small, lightweight “backpack” data-collection and transmitter devices, enabling the EGEWG to track the birds’ locations and movements. When the project began, says Cooper, “We didn’t know where our source populations were, where they fledged from, where they migrated to, how they were utilizing ridges for flight—none of that was known.” Now, though, “We have an incredibly large data set of literally hundreds of thousands of locations.” The tracking has revealed, among other details, that birds that winter in Virginia migrate to summer nesting grounds as far north as the Hudson Bay region of Canada.

Golden eagles, so named for the golden-colored feathers on the neck and head of adult birds, are among North America’s largest raptors; mature birds can have a wingspan as broad as 7.5 feet. Despite their size, they are fast and agile flyers. They have been clocked plummeting at speeds of close to 200 miles per hour, and they demonstrate their agility through “aerial play”—repeatedly dropping and catching sticks or dead prey—or in fluid, undulating climbs and descents known as “sky dancing.” 

That skill in flight makes golden eagles effective and deadly hunters, too. Although they typically prey on small mammals like rabbits, they have been documented attacking animals as large as deer, bobcats, coyotes and sheep.

The eagles’ winter habitat in Virginia, says Cooper, facilitates efficient flight by allowing the birds to take advantage of the uplift from winds that blow in from the northwest, riding the currents that “shoot straight up” when the wind strikes the mountains.

Because of those winds, however, that habitat could also attract wind-power projects, which is one concern driving the EGEWG’s research. The birds are vulnerable to deadly collisions with wind turbines; having a comprehensive understanding of the eagles’ movements and activities, as well as their migration corridors and winter habitats, will provide guidance for future wind-power developments. “This is one of the few times in wildlife management when we have the data before the issue we are dealing with,” says Cooper. “We can highlight areas of the state where there is potential for wind industry and eagles to interact.”

Want to see a golden eagle for yourself this winter? Cooper recommends locations including Highland County near Monterey, Bath County, the Clinch Mountain State Wildlife Management Area in southwest Virginia, and Sky Meadows State Park in Fauquier County. Scan the ridges for the birds in flight—but don’t expect the solitary, high-flying eagles will be easy to spot. “You’ve got to hunt for them,” says Cooper. “I could take you to places where I routinely catch eagles, but we may not even see a golden the whole week we are looking for them.”

That elusiveness, and the eagles’ remote winter habitat in the state, explain how the birds managed to remain an under-recognized presence in Virginia for so long.  

“I didn’t think they were here, and lo and behold, I was way far off on that assumption,” says Cooper. “The abundance was incredibly surprising.”

This article originally appeared in our December 2017 issue.

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