Candid critter camera

Tales from the trail cam: Golden eagles don’t share, bald eagles do


The Farm at Sunnyside
A golden eagle captured by a trail camera at The Farm at Sunnyside last month. The Farm at Sunnyside

A golden eagle returned to The Farm at Sunnyside in Washington on Jan. 2, and was photographed by a trail camera feasting on deer guts, almost exactly a year apart from the last golden eagle trail-cam sighting on the farm. For the last four years, farm biologist Sam Quinn has recorded nearly 35,000 trail camera photos of a total of 48 animal species.

The cameras are attached to trees near the remains of harvested deer and rabbit. When triggered, the the heat- and motion-activated cameras take five photos at two per second, before requiring another trigger.

“It’s definitely just passing through,” the 30-year-old Quinn said recently, of the golden eagle caught on camera last month. “This one had likely been farther south in a more hospitable area with more food supply for the winter. Now they’re probably going north to breed, or to their primary habitat out west. And that could very well be the same individual on its migration route. Golden eagles are really more of a western species. They’re relatively rare in the east.”

Three golden eagles were recorded near Skyland between Jan. 21 and Feb. 5 by remote camera, around the time of the blizzard, as part of an ongoing multi-agency Eastern Golden Eagle Monitoring Project. As a result of more than six years of camera station monitoring and other information like migration surveys by many state, federal and private groups, the Eastern Golden Eagle Working Group has determined that about 5,000 golden eagles spend their winters in many forested and mountainous areas of the East. Prior to this cooperative effort, it was thought that only about 1,000 golden eagles wintered in the Eastern United States.

According to a Shenandoah National Park report, although segments of the golden eagle population in the western United States have been extensively studied, relatively little is known about golden eagles east of the Mississippi. This small and potentially vulnerable population has largely “flown under the radar” of both the birding public and the research community.

Largest, fastest, nimblest raptors

Golden eagles lives throughout Europe, Asia, northern Africa and North America. In North America, the species breeds primarily in the western half of the continent, from Alaska south to Central Mexico. A smaller, geographically isolated and potentially distinct population breeds in northeastern Canada, and is thought to migrate through the central Appalachians of New York and Pennsylvania and winter in Virginia, West Virginia and neighboring states. Its winter range in Virginia is primarily associated with the Appalachians, although some birds may also be found in the Coastal Plain and records exist for the Piedmont.

Rappahannock County marks the southern boundary of the golden eagle migratory range. Quinn said that although they mostly eat rabbits and other small game, golden eagles could take down much larger animals like sheep and deer.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes the golden eagle as one of the largest, fastest, nimblest raptors in North America. Lustrous gold feathers gleam on the back of its head and neck; a powerful beak and talons advertise its hunting prowess. You’re most likely to see this eagle in western North America, soaring on steady wings or diving in pursuit of the jackrabbits and other small mammals that are its main prey. Sometimes seen attacking large mammals, or fighting off coyotes or bears in defense of its prey and young, the golden eagle has long inspired both reverence and fear.

The trail cameras at the Farm at Sunnyside aren’t just set up to catch the occasional golden eagle.

“But I mean the golden eagle, it’s just such a striking bird, and it’s one of those good poster childs for the importance of trying to get the lead out of ammunition,” Quinn said, outlining the “gut cam” project that he and farm owner Nick Lapham started in 2012. Whenever a deer or rabbit is harvested by hunters on the farm, with lead-free ammunition, a motion camera is fixed to a tree near the pile of guts, head and hide.

“Walking around with a grocery bag full of rabbit heads, it’s interesting,” Quinn said. “We are addressing this issue with lead, but really what this study is looking at is: How many animals use the remains of hunting in hunting season? Because it’s probably a very important source of protein, both for our residents like ravens, and for migrants like golden eagles. And we’re really surprised that usually within about 10 hours, you get a dozen species. Crows and ravens almost always show up first. You get all the hawks — like red-tailed hawk, red-shouldered hawk — you get bald eagles, golden eagles, bear and bobcat, coyotes and red-tailed foxes, and of course things like opossum and raccoon.”

The pecking order of scavengers

Quinn adjusted his glasses as he scrolled through the thousands of trail cam photos on his computer, almost creating a stop-motion progression of scavengers approaching, feasting and leaving.

“I feel like remains from hunting season are probably a very important protein source for a lot of these animals in the dead of winter,” Quinn said, leaning back in his office chair and running a hand through windswept hair. “And so they really draw things in from quite a distance, and many animals potentially exposed to lead. Now we’re not really at that with this. We only use non-lead ammunition. We’re not doing any tissue testing, we’re not trying to form that direct link; we’re just showing how many animals may potentially be exposed to it — and it’s pretty staggering.”

It is interesting not only the species of animals photographed, but their behaviors at the carcass. The pecking order of scavengers is also made apparent through the photo progressions.

“So at the bottom of the totem pole are things like crows. And then you get things like ravens and hawks. And then vultures, turkey vulture, black vulture” Quinn said, noting that ravens and foxes are often seen snatching pieces and taking them off to store, before returning again for another piece to hide in another direction. “And strangely enough, eagles are at the top, but bald eagles tend to share with everyone. Golden eagles, as soon as there’s a golden eagle, everything else disappears.”

Lethal lead

Lead in ammunition for waterfowl has been banned since the early ’90s, partly because lead damages the water supply. Quinn said that in high-powered rifle hunting, soft-core lead bullets tend to shatter and fragment, while copper bullets mushroom but stay intact.

“But the important part is: If a lead bullet breaks up in an animal, there are these tiny little pieces that you often miss; and they’re most prevalent in things like hamburger,” Quinn said. “There’s a slight risk to humans, but it’s really scavengers that are harmed. It’s these species that — like golden eagle, bald eagle, ravens, vultures — that visit these carcasses all the time. And lead poisoning is the leading cause of death in California condors. There’s multiple studies that have tested dead eagles, both bald and golden eagle. When they test for lead, they find lethal levels of lead in like 10-15 percent of them. So it’s definitely happening.

“And when they do test live birds, the elevated [lead] levels are always in the hunting season. So there’s definitely a link there,” Quinn continued. “So the question is, how can hunters and conservationists — since we have the same goals — how can we work together to find a solution that doesn’t put too much of a burden on hunters, but at the same time, gets the message out that this is a real problem?”

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries will release total deer-kill figures from this hunting season at the end of this month. Last year, nearly 200,000 deer were taken by hunters. And that means a lot of guts left around for scavengers.