adventures in nature

aerie of eagles

Despite being a raptor fanatic and having at least one eye always on the sky, until this November I had less than 10 confirmed sightings of golden eagles. Mated pairs have huge territories that they fiercely defend against other eagles, and these are usually far from human development and in places that humans tend to avoid due to their remoteness and rugged terrain. These birds are one of the largest in the sky, being only slightly smaller than bald eagles (and both eagles being greatly outsized by the CA condor) – but they are not commonly seen.

adult golden eagle

That all changed for me in the beginning of November when I made my first trip to San Benito County, located just south of the San Francisco Bay Area, where right now there is an incredible density of golden eagles, ferruginous hawks, and other raptors who seem to have come there to spend the winter, or have paused there to feed on their way further south. Presumably the allure is the huge number of ground squirrels that are now being displaced from their burrows as farmers start to disc plow their fields. San Benito County is covered by a lot of grassland, chaparral, and farmland and is known as a prime birding spot, but the gathering of so many golden eagles this year seems to be a very special occurrence. There have been reports of there being up to 30 golden eagles visible in the sky at one time.

golden eagle over grasslands

On both days that I’ve spent there, there was seldom more than a five minute period when there weren’t golden eagles and ferruginous hawks in the sky around us, along with the more ubiquitous red-tailed hawks, kestrels, turkey vultures, and ravens.

It was also an amazing chance to see the varied plummages of the ferruginous hawk, our largest hawk here in the U.S. (slightly larger than the red-tailed hawk). Generally these birds are only seen in CA during the winter after they have migrated south from their summer breeding grounds. Their most typical plummage is composed of almost completely white undersides with some rust/rufous highlights and streaking, particularly on the legs, and a darker top side that contains greys, whites, and rust colors. But some of the birds have very dark coloring (called a dark morph) meaning their feathers are almost all a dark brown. Then of course there is everything in between. Absolutely beautiful birds.

adult ferruginous hawk 1 (light morph)

adult ferruginous hawk 2 (light morph)

adult ferruginous hawk 3 (dark morph)

adult ferruginous hawk 4 (light morph)

In addition to golden eagles we saw some adult and juvenile bald eagles – one of the juvenile bald eagles flew DIRECTLY over me and seemed to be checking me out as I was snapping photos. It was a great opportunity to see the differences between the juvenile golden eagles and the juvenile bald eagles.

juvenile bald eagle

juvenile golden eagle

It was some beautiful open space, some of the areas still had some of the native oak woodland trees and plants that hadn’t been cleared for grazing land or farming. Along a creek that wound through the hills by the road there was some nice riparian habitat, and in there I heard wild pigs and saw a bobcat.

CA ground squirrel

valley oak tree silhouette

loggerhead shrike


adult golden eagle

juvenile golden eagle

One response

  1. Zach leads the way at WCHW, with words, wisdom and photos follow him and us.
    thanks FeralZach!

    March 10, 2014 at 7:54 pm

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