A team at the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge is taking pictures of golden eagles on their migratory journey back home to support larger studies of these rare birds.
Biologist Dawn Washington and AmeriCorps volunteers Zach Dykema and Kristin Lance are heading this project. The refuge started studying golden eagles in the early 2000s and has camera trapped consecutively for the last three years.
“We’ve had golden eagles on our cameras every year for the last three years, but the other two years, it wasn’t until March,” Washington said. “This year we actually had them at the end of February.”
The eagles stuck around for four days in a row in late February, feeding on a deer carcass brought out by the refuge team. Unlike bald eagles, who like open grasslands and bodies of water, golden eagles like wooded areas with small openings, which the higher elevations of the Allegheny Highlands provide in abundance.
When the staff at the refuge collects camera evidence of golden eagles, they send it in to the state Department of Natural Resources. The state then compiles the refuge’s findings into a larger collection of ongoing golden eagle research. “The big thing for us is just to help out some fellow researchers,” Washington said.
One of the main goals of these studies is to see how far south the birds winter. Being geographically sparse and existing in low numbers, studying the migratory patterns of the eagles is difficult. “It’s a very spread out migration,” Washington said.
The eagles breed in northeastern Canada and then winter in the southern Appalachians. Some golden eagles are even spotted wintering in Louisiana.
Although they do not winter in the Canaan Valley, after three years of camera trapping, it is apparent that the eagles are using the refuge land as a respite on their way back home. Dykema speculated that the eagles were spotted earlier this year because of the warm spell in February.
Because of the thermal updrafts present in the mountains, the birds use the Allegheny Front as their migratory highway. According to one prominent researcher, Todd Katzner, “Movement of these birds is not random, and particularly in spring, migrating golden eagles concentrate in a narrow 30-50 mile wide corridor in central Pennsylvania.
Another goal of the study is to ascertain the risk of wind turbines to migratory avian species. Studying migratory patterns is important, especially in regions of high wind power development. As the golden eagles migrate, the wind turbines present a risk.
These studies and projects like the one in Canaan Valley hope to provide a safer and less controversial development of wind power. Researches are using golden eagles and their relationship with wind development as a potential representative for other predatory birds.
The refuge team stressed that they do not want citizens bringing in deer carcasses. They suggested that individuals can call DNR or the refuge to inform either of the location of a deer hit by a car.