Golden eagles soar across the Straits

Raptor Fest offers a chance to see this rare eagle species - April 5-7, 2019, in Mackinaw City,

A logo with the words Mackinaw Raptor Fest, April 5-7, 2019 shows the Mackinac Bridge in the background and a large golden eagle head off to the side. Website address appears across the bottom.
The Mackinaw Raptor festival is one of the best times and places in Michigan to view migrating golden eagles. Photo: Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch

The golden eagle is a truly majestic bird. Soaring across the skies with a wingspan of up to 7.5 feet, and weighing up to 13.5 pounds, the golden eagle is one of the largest birds of prey in the world.

Golden eagle’s have brown bodies, heads and tails, with bright golden necks and backs of their heads. Young birds also have a white band at the base of the tail and large white spots on the underside of the wing. It is a diverse hunter that uses a variety of hunting methods. It has been known to uses its size to complete impressive feats such as knocking young mountain goats or bighorn sheep off mountain cliffs causing them to fall and then be eaten as prey. However, most golden eagles primary prey are smaller mammals such as rabbits, hares, ground squirrels and prairie dogs. Besides diverse prey, the golden eagle lives is a wide variety of diverse habitats found across Asia, Europe, Northern Africa, the Middle East and Central America.

Eastern U.S. population

In the U.S. and Canada, the golden eagle is primarily known as a bird found in the western part of the country spanning from New Mexico and Arizona all the way up into the northern portions of Alaska. Small numbers of golden eagles are also spotted in the eastern part of the US in winter months and early spring and late fall. For several decades many assumed that these eastern birds were vagrants, or birds from the western part of the state that were lost.

However, as year after year turned up consistent, albeit low, numbers in the eastern US, many ornithologists (bird scientists) began to suspect there was a migratory population of golden eagles in eastern North America. In the 1990s a number of studies confirmed this theory, documenting breeding territories for golden eagles across northern Ontario and Quebec, and winter territories for these birds scattered across the eastern US.

By 2010, a working group called the Eastern Golden Eagle Working Group was established to help increase the understanding of this unique subpopulation of golden eagles. The group consists of scientists and resource managers from a large number of government entities and research institutions. Their shared knowledge is helping us better understand this unique subpopulation.

See golden eagles at the Mackinaw Raptor Festival

One of the premier places to view golden eagles in the Midwest is during the Mackinaw Raptor Festival in Mackinaw City, Mich. The festival takes place April 5-7, 2019, and offers presentations and field trips to highlight the raptor migration in the area.

Festival registration is open until March 29, 2019, and there are many presentations and field trips to choose from. This year many of the speakers will talk on golden eagles and the Eastern Golden Eagle Working Group will be holding their annual meeting there. Michigan State University Extension’s David Cuthrell will be the opening plenary speaker highlighting the work of the Michigan Natural Features Inventory and their work related to documenting raptors across the state of Michigan. Michigan Sea Grant educator Elliot Nelson will lead a field trip to view winter birds across the eastern Upper Peninsula such as snowy owls.

One of the highlights of the festival is the opportunity to join hawk counters from the Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch program as they observe and count migrating raptors. Many raptors congregate here as they prepare to cross the open water of the Straits of Mackinac. Upwards of 300+ golden eagles in a season have been counted by the raptor watch program. The prime migration time for golden eagles is mid-March through mid-April.  

Don’t miss this exciting opportunity to learn more about the raptors of Michigan and the chance to view a rare eastern golden eagle.

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University and its MSU Extension, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 33 university-based programs.

This article was prepared by Extension Educator Elliot Nelson under award NA14OAR4170070 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce through the Regents of the University of Michigan. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Commerce, or the Regents of the University of Michigan.

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