On Saturday, February 13th, I found a Golden Eagle at Lee County's Nachusa Grassland......
I first noticed the bird in Ogle County, about .5 or .75 mile east of Lowden about .1 mile north of Stone Barn Road at around 11:20 am. I happened to be scanning and saw a rather large bird slowly flying south that had me thinking Bald Eagle (as a couple are wintering in the area). When a Red-tailed Hawk started dive-bombing this big bird, I started getting some excitement, thinking perhaps this could be a Golden Eagle (as I've never seen RT's attack a Bald). After a few minutes, I was pretty certain I had the telltale tail and mid-wing white markings of a young Golden, but figured if I hurried, I might be able to get a closer view of the southbound bird. A couple minutes later I was driving down Carthage Road, south of Stone Barn Road, when I relocated the eagle high in the sky, circling alittle bit, acting like it was hunting the area. I was able to take a few confirming photos as the bird crossed the county line into Lee, a thrilling midday rarity in two counties!
The bird continued drifting further south, pretty much on the east side of Carthage, so I drove further down to the 'Carpenter Prairie' section of Nachusa Grasslands (.6 mile south of Stone Barn Road), hoping to position myself to get even better photos as the Golden came by. Little did I know I was about to experience what was one of the my most exciting Illinois birding experiences over the last three decades....
I relocated the Golden Eagle in the sky, again slowly moving south, but doing alittle circling... then I noticed it's behavior seemed to change. It set it's wings and began to dive in my general direction!
It was then that I noticed a terrified White-tailed Deer that had been caught out in an open cornfield adjacent to Nachusa's Carpenter's Prairie and was attempting to flee - was this eagle just having some midday fun by scaring the deer or did it have other purposes by dive-bombing it?
Despite deer having great open field speed, it was clear this one was quickly losing ground to the diving eagle - I could hardly believe my eyes, was this Golden Eagle going for a kill of an animal more than twice it's size?
The Golden catches up to the White-tail and rakes it's backside - it was trying to take the deer down!
A closeup of this hit shows it's back 2 talons extended and were used to dig or cut over the deer's hindquarters (apparent marking on deer's fur). I wonder if the eagle was trying to sever some of the deers powerful leg tendons so that it couldn't run fast or perhaps not move any further, which would then give the Golden Eagle additional attempts to finish the kill on a lying down White-tail. Take a close look at the two low hanging talons on the eagle that were just used to attack this deer:
Just to make it clear that this deer was shocked by the 'hit', here's a closeup of the deer's face just after the Golden Eagle connected on its hindquarters:
You can see the shadow of the eagle is cast over the deer's head and snow beyond it.. imagine the terror the deer is going through at that moment:
The White-tail begins to try a new tactic of running in a different direction as compared to the former straight line method it had been using:
Here's a extreme closeup of the above shot. Note how the Golden eye's are focused down on the deer. This was no winter fun, it was definitely eager to see how it might be able to make this deer its midday lunch:
The shock and/or pain might have added some adrenaline to the deer, as it might have had further recognition its life was in danger, which gave it a burst of speed (see all the snow kicked up in the background right side). It was now heading full speed in a new direction, hoping to escape another eagle attack:
Having already discovered it didn't have the speed to get away in a straight line, the deer continues to employ its new criss-cross escape plan which the eagle doesn't appear to be able to adjust to as quickly:
The chase continues across the road and into the main part of 'Carpenter's Prairie'. The Golden is now flying only about a mere eight feet above the ground - imagine standing in the prairie and getting 'buzzed' by a Golden Eagle!
Here's a top view of this eagle:
This time the deer's tactics apparently saved its life as the Golden Eagle began circling again:
Since I lost sight of the very low flying eagle over a prairie hill, I figured I could perhaps drive all the way around to the Nachusa Grasslands visitor center parking lot and look back east to see if I could relocate the eagle. This eagle attack on the deer occurred in the 11:30-11:35 am timeframe. So I headed south on Carthage Road, then west on Naylor Road. It was there I saw a large flock of confident Wild Turkeys, milling about on the road edge, eating some seed. They hardly moved when my car came by:
I thought to myself that if this Golden Eagle keeps heading south, these Turkeys are in for the shock of their life. If the eagle would try to kill a White-tailed Deer, it would no doubt 'settle' for a Turkey sandwich.
Meanwhile, i finally got back to the aforementioned Nachusa parking lot where after about 15 minutes I was finally able to relocate the eagle hunting about .5 mile east of Lowden Road. I was able to get others on the eagle and at one point, we watched as two Rough-legged Hawks started to dive-bomb this eagle. Apparently even all the local big buteos felt threatened by this Golden! Even though RL's are large winged, they sure did look like shrimp in the sky while dive-bombing the Golden!
Meanwhile, the Golden continued to meander southbound in the direction of the Turkeys I had just seen. Not wanting to miss some potential action, I returned just in time to see the former confident flock of 32 Turkeys who had been strutting about in the open, now reduced down to a group of 8 terrified birds with all of them trying to move quickly to the nearest woods. Note the one Turkey on the right looking into the sky:
In retrospect, my presence likely contributed to none of the Turkeys dying as the eagle never dove down onto one, despite circling above the turkey area:
It was now 12 noon and the Golden continued circling and appearing to head south into the Franklin Creek Natural Area, so I drove all the way around to its south side, hoping to catch the eagle continuing its apparent southbound journey. But I never did see it again down in this area.
I initially thought there was a great chance that this Golden Eagle was the same one found here in Nachusa in mid-December by Neise/Skrentny. But if this eagle was continuing to head south, perhaps it was just a new one. To my great surprise, while looking at other raptors south of Flagg Road, halfway between Lowden and Carthage Roads (back in Ogle County), I again relocated this Golden Eagle. The time was 1:11 pm and I watched it circle way up high in the sky, obviously still hunting the area:
I tried to stay with it, but lost the bird as it gained altitude heading in this easterly direction and I lost track of it by 1:25 pm.
So in retrospect, I believe the odds are good this is the same first winter Golden Eagle found almost two months ago here. During my observations, the eagle basically was hunting in the 9 square mile block bounded by Lowden Road on the west, Stone Barn Road on the north, Hoosier Road on the east and Naylor Road on the south, with most of Saturday's hunting occurring within .5 mile on either side of Carthage Road.
Considering I first saw this eagle coming from the north of this 9 square mile area and when last seen heading east out of it, it's clear this eagle has a feeding territory over 10 square miles large. Factoring in the December sighting, which was primarily in the main portion of Nachusa Grasslands and areas to the west/northwest, would add in another 2-3 square miles of territory. That would make at least a 13+ square mile hunting territory. And this doesn't include potential other nearby good areas, like the open country on either side of Flagg Road, west of the town of Lost Nation (where all the geese have been hanging out along the river)... or the open country areas further north towards Lowden-Miller State Forest or even the open farmlands southeast, east and northeast of Saturdays hunting area. It's possible this Golden Eagle's winter hunting territory could extend up to 20 or more square miles! (I'm not sure if their winter territories ranges out West are this large).
If you try for this bird, a few helpful hints might increase your chances of finding it.
1) It hangs out typically higher in the sky than the buteos, so unless you consider occasionally looking up higher, it could be flying over you without you knowing it!
2) If you see raptors dive-bombing another raptor, this could be hawks reacting to this bigger and apparently very threatening eagle.
3) This birds wingspan is very large, as expected of an eagle, but if flies with a completely different motion and flap than the Bald's, so if you pay attention to flying Bald's, then it might help you uncover a distant flying Golden more quickly.
This Golden Eagle's plumage is very interesting in the sense that it's inner wings appear to be well on their way to adulthood, while the tail appears to be just staring to molt. It already had the typical 'golden' colored nape feathers which this species gets its name.
Truly this was a most remarkable and very exciting midday experience, one of my alltime great Illinois birding experiences.