Recent research conducted by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) reveals that the Southern Appalachians may be an important wintering ground for Golden Eagles, once considered rare visitors to the mountains of NC and TN. As part of the Eastern Golden Eagle Working Group, NCWRC set up camera trap stations across Western NC through the winters of 2013, 2014 and 2015. They also captured and released five Golden Eagles fitted with GPS transmitters. Their research casts an intriguing new light on these magnificent birds.
The Golden Eagle may not be the first species that springs to mind when you think about migratory avian visitors to the Southern Appalachians. But thanks to a series of regional research studies, we are gaining new understanding about the presence of these majestic raptors in our mountains.
“This is a very shy, secretive bird,” says Christine Kelly, Wildlife Diversity Biologist with the NC Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC). “Although large, the Golden Eagle is reclusive and dwells in remote areas — such that we didn’t have a good idea of its behavior and occurrence in our area until now.”
Following a standardized survey format so their research could be combined with others in the Eastern Golden Eagle Working Group, the NCWRC set up 26 camera trap stations across WNC to study the occurrence and distribution of migrating Golden Eagles. They used fresh road kill as bait for the birds to scavenge, secured to the ground by steel rebar so that motion-activated cameras could capture clear photos. Over the course of three winters of data collection (2013-15), the team documented Golden Eagles at 17 camera trapping stations in 16 counties and collected tens of thousands of images. At Unaka Mountain alone they captured 1,200 Golden Eagle photos!
“For the camera stations, we chose small clearings on hilltops, surrounded by trees where the birds could perch,” explains Kelly. “They need to have enough space to swoop down and take off. Some of these stations were in very remote wooded areas, places difficult to access in the winter. We were hopeful we’d get one bird on camera, and it turned out we saw a lot more.”
The camera trap study demonstrates that the Western North Carolina mountains may be an important over-wintering area for Golden Eagles.
In conjunction with the camera trap project, Trish Miller and Mike Lanzone, consulting research biologists experienced with rocket netting techniques, captured five eagles. The two male and three female birds were fitted with lightweight GPS trackers which reveal greater detail about their movements.
“In SAHC’s service area, we can tell that all the GPS-tagged birds spent time in Mitchell County, and one male spent a lot of time in the Roan and Unaka,” says Kelly. “They often roost on a forested hilltop above an open area like a farm.”
After winter, the Golden Eagles return to nesting grounds in Canada, as far away as northern Quebec. The primary threats they face include: collision with ridge-top wind turbines in their migratory path, lead poisoning from scavenging animals killed with lead shot, and accidental capture in foothold traps used by fur trappers.
With the data-collection process complete, efforts now focus on the monumental task of analyzing and looking for patterns to inform conservation, public education, and habitat management efforts. As a result of this regional camera trapping effort, seven more eastern states have now listed the Golden Eagle as priority species in their State Wildlife Action Plans.
“We are analyzing the results and trying to determine how we can use this information to help the species,” continues Kelly. “It’s great to fill in the knowledge gaps – the biology and distribution of the group. But then what do we do with what we learned? We want to use these collected data to benefit the species. One way is to protect the forested areas where the birds roost in the winter, and this is where conservation organizations like SAHC come in — looking at priorities for land protection.”
Cherokee — An Eagle’s Tale
Captured and tagged near dusk at Unaka Mountain in 2015, Cherokee broke the record for the largest Golden Eagle captured in the Eastern US (13.6 lbs). The very next day, the NCWRC team broke that record again, with the capture of a 14.3 lbs female nicknamed “Cheoh” in southwestern NC.
Since then, four of the GPS units on birds tagged by the team have stopped transmitting; only Cherokee’s unit continues to send data — and it paints an impressive picture.
She winters in the mountains of NC and TN, spending a lot of time in Cherokee National Forest and down by the Nolichucky River. She has even been tracked on our Lost Cove property (which is now part of Pisgah National Forest). In spring, she migrates north along the Appalachians to the Adirondack Mountains before crossing into Quebec and winging north to her nesting grounds in northern Labrador & Newfoundland — about 1,700 miles away!
Cherokee particularly favors a portion of Cherokee National Forest land managed by prescribed burning, prompting researchers to ask “What is she doing there? What draws her to this place?”
Analyzing GPS data from the transmitters, researchers hope to gain better understanding about the behavior of Golden Eagles and find ways to benefit the species. For example, knowing more about what they are hunting and where could lead to management activities that help their prey.