A high-tech research project helped along by a middle Georgia hunt club recently began tracking one of the state’s most rare raptors – a golden eagle.
Project partners including West Virginia University, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Cellular Tracking Technologies and Devil’s Backbone Hunting Club teamed to catch the young eagle at a “bait” pile Feb. 15 and attach a tracking device. The club’s 4,700-acre lease borders Sprewell Bluff Wildlife Management Area near Thomaston.
The 5-year-old eagle, which was still in the area as of Monday, is the first caught in Georgia for the effort that has documented eastern North America’s golden eagles and their migration routes since 2006. Initially aimed at exploring the threats wind turbine sites pose to the continent’s largest bird of prey, the work has expanded from Pennsylvania and West Virginia to as far south as Alabama as scientists learned that the eagles don’t always migrate to and from Canada along Appalachian Mountain ridges. Some fly through the Midwest, according to project leader Dr. Tricia Miller of West Virginia University.
To fill in details about those routes and the population’s distribution, 270 camera stations were used to look for golden eagles last year. Researchers also tracked about 30 birds bearing the phone-sized transmitters that weigh less than three postal letters and post almost real-time updates to cell towers.
The results at Devil’s Backbone, where at least two golden eagles have been photographed since January, is eye-opening for a state where only a handful of sightings are reported each year, suggested Program Manager Jim Ozier of the DNR Wildlife Resources Division’s Nongame Conservation Section.
The findings, Ozier said, “will help us figure out what habitats they’re using and what migratory paths.”
Hunt club President Jodi Killen said members didn’t know there were golden eagles at Devil’s Backbone. Yet within two days of setting out fresh road-killed deer as bait, one showed up. Since then, “We know for sure we’ve had two, and possibly three, if not four,” Killen said.
Unlike bald eagles, which orient to open water and feed more on fish, golden eagles favor high-elevation forests and a terrestrial diet that includes groundhogs, rabbits, even turkeys and carrion, such as deer. The secluded habitats result in fewer sightings, even for a top predator with a wing span up to 7 feet.
“We tend to think of them as the ghosts of the eastern forests,” Miller said.
Golden eagles are more common west of the Mississippi River, but they’re also found in Mexico, where they’re the national bird, as well as Asia, Europe and northern Africa. Though similar in size to bald eagles, golden eagles have legs covered in feathers and the adults are almost entirely chocolate-colored. Both species are protected by state law and by the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
Ozier contacted Miller about trying to catch a golden eagle for the project after hearing about one feeding on wild hog carcasses in Upson County last year. A U.S. Forest Service camera “trap” had also photographed possibly another in northwest Georgia. The Environmental Resources Network, or TERN, friends group of the Nongame Conservation Section, provided a grant to buy two transmitters.
Killen was contacted by nongame senior wildlife biologist Nathan Klaus, who had worked with the club and knows how unique the Sprewell Bluff area is. Klaus says some habitats there are globally endangered. Others, many on private land, also rate high in conservation value. “The rugged mountains around Sprewell Bluff are full of grassy woodlands, great hunting habitats for golden eagles,” Klaus said.
When asked if the club would provide a site, build a blind and keep the bait pile stocked, Killen passed along the request to members. “Next thing I knew, I got, like, 10 volunteers,” he said.
For fresh bait, the club networked with Klaus and local law enforcement, including the Georgia State Patrol post in Manchester, which alerted them to new road kills. Members picked up about 30 deer.
The hard work paid off Feb. 15. Just after sunrise, Miller and Cellular Tracking Technologies’ Michael Lanzone, Miller’s husband and developer of the transmitters, used a net propelled by .22-rifle blanks to capture the eagle. Blood samples revealed the lowest lead levels Miller has seen in a golden eagle. Raptors can suffer lead poisoning from eating carrion killed by lead shot, and lead poisoning is another focus of the Appalachian eagles project.
The Georgia eagle was one of eight caught and fitted with transmitters in the South this year.
With golden eagles migrating north soon, Miller doesn’t plan to return until next winter. Ozier will keep the second transmitter for use then. The club will check the cameras for now. And Miller and project partners will continue monitoring the Devil’s Backbone bird, watching for new insights into golden eagles in Georgia and across the eastern U.S.