Where are all the Eagles in Eagle County?
Eagle County. Eagle River. Why are they named so? Because there are lots of eagles around here.
But where you find the majestic birds depends on whether you’re looking for a golden eagle or a bald eagle. In winter, they both live here. Golden eagles like mountains and cliffs while bald eagles like rivers.
Look closely, and you will see them; bring your binoculars, and keep them handy in the glove box of your car, so you’re always ready.
To find eagles, you have to know what to look for, and when. Generally speaking, bald eagles are here only in the winter and spring.
To find bald eagles, drive to the nearest large river. The Eagle River, the Colorado River or the Arkansas River will all do nicely. Look in the limbs of cottonwood trees or near the tops of very large pines for blotches of white that stand out from the landscape.
Bald eagles have long white heads and big white tails that stand out. Bald eagles measure about 30 inches tall, and weigh 9 1/2 pounds. Their wingspan is almost 7 feet.
Imagine the energy it takes to keep a beast of this weight in flight – bald eagles, therefore, must conserve energy.
Bald eagles are serious avian raptors who patiently play the waiting game. A bald eagle sits, waits and watches for a very long time. When the perfect opportunity presents itself, the bird reacts with deadly grace. Utilizing precise, telescopic vision, the eagle swoops down at break-neck speed to snatch a fish, a duck or mammal.
Bald eagles inflict a high-speed, bone-snapping blow to its prey. If even more force is required, the bird uses its spine-severing, meat-tearing bill.
Look for bald eagles where there is more open water, and less ice, on the river. Also look for bald eagles in the tops of dead, standing trees. If you drive slowly along the Eagle River from Gypsum to Minturn, and you’re watching closely, you should see several bald eagles. When you spot one, stay in your car and view them with binoculars.
If you are fairly close by, and get out of your car, you will probably spook them. The eagles are conserving energy in the winter, so it’s best not to make them fly off.
A spotting scope on a full-sized tripod is handy because the magnification is much higher than binoculars. You can be farther away from the bird or animal, yet get a close up view without disturbing the wildlife.
A spotting scope is a great toy. It costs a chunk of change, but is right in line cost-wise with telemark skis, kayaks or mountain bikes. A good scope will last a lifetime and can provide countless intimate experiences with birds and animals.
The view through the scope often makes the difference between positively identifying and observing a species, or being stuck with, “I can’t quite tell.” To see the sparkle in its eye, the ripples in its muscles or the light glistening off its feathers, use a scope – and a full-sized tripod.
Winged war machine
Now, getting back to the golden eagles, arguably North America’s fiercest and most aggressive avian raptor, known to knock mountain goat kids and bighorn lambs off of precarious cliffs. We’re talking one big bully here.
Golden eagles rule year-round from high crags, the tops of sheer cliffs and perches on prominent rock outcrops. “Meat, meat, meat,” is all they think about.
I generally spot golden eagles in three ways: in soaring flight, perched or on a carcass. When I see a golden eagle eating road kill, it’s startling just how big they are: 30 or more inches tall, 10 pounds and a 7-foot wingspan. Remember all the bone crushing power of the bald eagle? It’s the same with a golden eagle, but with even deadlier force.
Using their telescopic, high-resolution vision to comb the landscape for unsuspecting prey, the golden eagle is like a war machine. Imagine the striking power when a 10-pound bird flying 50 mph strikes its unsuspecting prey in the back of the neck – not to mention the piercing talons, meat-tearing hooked bill and other weapons.
Golden eagles often hunt in pairs. One flushes the bunny, the other one snags it. Golden eagles hunt rabbits, coyotes, newborns of all large mammals, fox, hares, marmots and more. And both bald and golden eagles frequently eat the carcasses of already dead animals.
Golden eagles also like to soar – as in not flapping their wings, not once, for a very long time. Their wings spread wide while they soar on a thermal, which can be described as the sun’s warmth on a mountainside causing hot air to rise and create an updraft.
The golden eagle just sticks out those massive wings and takes the free hot-air elevator to a nice high altitude for a better view. Another option is to ride the ripping high-speed thermal across a rock face.
Watch the wings
How do you tell the difference between a bald and golden while the birds are in flight and when you can’t see its colors? Look at the wing profile.
Looking at the birds head-on or from the back, soaring golden eagles hold their wings in a slight V-shape. Bald eagles, on the other hand, keep their wings flat while soaring.
Look also at the length of the head. Bald eagles have long heads that stick way forward from the front of their wings. The heads of golden eagles, on the other hand, barely protrude in front of their wings.
When you see the color as the bird goes overhead, a white head and a white tail mean a bald eagle. If it’s mottled browns and golds, and has a banded tail, it’s a golden eagle.
If it’s mottled browns and golds, and has white “windows” on its wrists, it’s a young golden eagle. If it’s blotchy white and brown, long-headed, gangly and generally unattractive, it’s a young bald eagle. It takes four or five years for bald eagles to grow full, adult plumage.
In both species of eagles, females are larger than the males. Eagles can live up to 20 years in the wild.
Ravens or vultures can be mistaken for eagles. Ravens sometimes soar, but they spend the bulk of their time flapping their wings hard and fast. Sing the song, “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the steam, merrily, merrily, merrily” at a fairly fast clip and you’ve got the wing beat of a raven.
In contrast, an eagle has 7 feet of wings to flap. Instead, think “whoosh” like a giant fan. The eagle’s wing beat is slow and powerful.
And a bird that’s black and gray is not an eagle – it’s a raven or a vulture. Vultures only show up in the valley in the summer and keep their wings in a sharper V-shape, constantly tilting back and forth while in flight.
Look for, and find, bald eagles along the Eagle River especially between Edwards and Gypsum. Occasionally, I see bald eagles in Minturn, and have seen them as high up as the Homestake Valley above Red Cliff. Look for bald eagles anywhere along the Colorado River from above State Bridge downstream to Dotsero.
Golden eagles live in all of the major drainages in East Vail. You can frequently see golden eagles soaring above the Vail Mountain School at the entrance to Booth Creek.
If you snowshoe up Gore Creek, watch for golden eagles soaring along the sunny, rocky crags high on your left. Golden eagles can also be spotted near the cliffs outside of Minturn, on Battle Mountain and above Red Cliff.
Farther west, golden eagles can be seen perched on cliffs from Wolcott to State Bridge and along Interstate 70 anywhere from Wolcott to the state line and beyond into Utah.
Here we are in Eagle County and it’s full of eagles – just remember to look.
Tom and Tanya Wiesen are the owners of Trailwise Guides; a snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and wildlife watching guide service in the Vail Valley. Contact Trailwise at (970) 827-5363.