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Winter Visitors

March 11, 2010

This is golden eagle country. To be sure, there are healthy populations of various lesser raptors but none have the size, the strength, or the majesty of Aquila chrysaetos. I know of a handful of active nest sites near my home, and I have already begun to check for signs of activity, anticipating yet another successful breeding season.

But at this particular moment I am captivated by four bald eagles perched atop the trees two hundred yards before me. Two have the unmistakable white heads of adults. Western meadowlarks call from the fields to my east, and as a northern harrier dallies over the marshes to my west marsh wrens chatter and Americans coots squawk. But all fall silent as a fifth eagle, a juvenile bird with salt-and-pepper plumage, flies a low and determined line, past me, to join its colleagues in the trees.

Bald eagles visit every winter. They are usually seen in the large, leafless trees lining river banks and lake shores. They begin to arrive in late October and number in the hundreds until late February, when they begin the return to their northern breeding grounds. Although it is the first week of March, many remain. I have counted over thirty this afternoon, mostly out on the broken ice of Utah Lake. They eat fish, jack rabbits and other small mammals, and other birds. I once watched a bald eagle pluck an unsuspecting coot from a pond and repair to a nearby cottonwood tree for lunch, the fresh crimson blood in vivid contrast to the eagle’s bright yellow bill and snowy head.

A few pairs will remain in Utah and mate. Arizona and Colorado also have a small number of successful breeding pairs. I once happened across a bald eagle nest, perched high in an ancient cottonwood tree, surrounded by redrock desert. A massive bundle of enormous sticks, the size of a small car, it was occupied by two young, as large as wild turkeys, hungrily remonstrating with parents lounging on nearby branches.

One eagle flies, and then another. Three remain as I drive slowly beneath them on my way home. I know when I return next week that these birds, too, will also be gone.

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