Eagle River, Eagle County … the valley is aptly named. Both golden and bald e agles are longtime locals – soaring high above our mountain community all year round, adding majesty and legend to the sky.
Bald eagles were chosen as our national symbol in 1782 because of their stoicism, large size, imposing presence and hunting prowess. Although, it has been famously argued that Ben Franklin’s choice of the turkey might have been a better fit. Bada boom.
Walking Mountain’s Community Outreach Coordinator Peter Suneson, a naturalist and birding enthusiast, said his favorite eagle legend has to do with their part in the creation of Grand Mesa, just west of Vail.
“Ute Legend has it that a pair of giant eagles was nesting on Grand Mesa and terrorizing the communities below,” Suneson said. “One day a Ute brave scaled Grand Mesa and threw all the eggs of the nesting eagles into the Colorado River below. When the eagles returned to their nests, they saw the cracked eggs all over the Colorado River Basin below, and believing the river was a winding serpent that had in fact killed their young, the eagles swooped down to the river and ripped it to shreds, carrying off little bits and pieces dropping them all over Grand Mesa, creating the pothole lakes and temporal streams that are still found there today.”
After you’ve seen one of these creatures in its natural habitat it’s no wonder they inspire such epic stories. With its white head and tail, contrasting dark body, six- to eight-foot wingspan, piercing eyes, massive hooked beak and powerful talons — the bald eagle is unforgettable and truly unmistakable among the birds of prey in North America.
Golden eagles are dark brown, with lighter golden-brown plumage on their heads and necks. They are extremely swift, and can dive upon their prey at speeds of more than 150 miles per hour.
Immature “baldies” are dark until they are about five years old — making them easy to mistake for golden eagles. It’s around five years of age when they start to gain the distinctive white markings that make their parents so easy to identify. So habitat preference is one of the most distinguishing characteristics between the two types of eagles and the best way to identify which one is which.
“Bald eagles are almost ‘pescatarians’ through and through, meaning they prefer to eat fish, so it is most common to see them around rivers and streams hunting for fish,” Suneson said. “golden eagles prefer to nest on high cliffs or mountain peaks. They eat rodents, rabbits, anything small and furry they can fit in their talons. Both species will also eat carrion, or dead meat, so if you see vultures circling a carcass, there is potential for Eagles.”
Golden eagles mate for several years, or possibly life, and pairs maintain territories that may be as large as 60 square miles. They nest in high places including cliffs, trees or human structures such as telephone poles. They build huge nests to which they may return for several breeding years. Females lay from one to four eggs, and both parents incubate them for 40 to 45 days. Typically, one or two young survive to fledge in about three months, according to Bald eagles are believed to mate for life, too, and may perform dramatic aerial courtship displays in which they fly to great heights, lock their feet together, and then tumble and cartwheel toward the ground, breaking off at the last moment. A pair constructs an enormous stick nest — one of the bird-world’s biggest — high above the ground and tends to a pair of eggs each year.
According to Bill Andree, Eagle County’s Colorado Parks and Wildlife Manager, there are four active eagle nests within the county. Although he wouldn’t say the local population is “thriving” — breeding population is definitely up from a few years ago.
“One of the biggest problems is loss of nesting habitats, large trees along water. This can come from trees being cut down or blowing down or from human disturbance around the tree that would cause the eagles to abandon the nesting site,” Andree said.
Many of the bald eagles in Eagle County in winter have migrated here, so winter population can be impacted from causes well outside the county. Weather events, like high winds or late season storms, can impact the nesting success or cause the loss of their nesting tree. “The population increase in Eagle County is most likely tied to several factors. The fact that the bald eagle population is increasing nationwide means there are more young birds looking for areas to claim as their own,” Andree said. “The clean up of the Eagle River has had a significant impact on the fish population, which allows the eagles to have nesting areas along the Eagle River where there are large trees for nests and a steady supply of fish.”
Although golden and bald eagles are here year round, winter is the best time to spot the majestic baldies.
“The best way to see them is actually from a car as you drive along the Eagle or Colorado Rivers. Using your car as a blind reduces the chance that you will disturb the birds and cause them to fly away,” Andree said. Suneson’s favorite place to spot a baldie is on the Upper Colorado River near Pumphouse or Dotsero.
Golden eagles can be seen in these same areas but they spend more time hunting in upland areas especially in locations where there are wintering deer and elk, Andree added.
“Regularly, there are goldens circling overhead on many of the trails in Eagle County. I’ve seen birds and mating displays near the high cliffs on the Fall Creek Pass trail or near Kokomo Pass above Camp Hale,” Suneson said.
Andree recommends buying a high quality birding book and studying the pictures and descriptions since the plumage of both birds vary and change as the birds mature. And, the best way to up your chances of seeing one of Eagle County’s namesake birds is to go with a birder, like Suneson, on a nature hike. This winter, Walking Mountains will host free one-hour snowshoe tours at Walking Mountains in Avon and the Nature Discovery Center at Eagle’s Nest atop Vail. For a deeper experience, the science school will also offer a four-hour snowshoe tours all over the White River National Forest on Tuesdays and Thursdays from December to March or whenever the snow runs out.