adventures in nature

2015 Oct 11 golden eagle, dark morph red-tail, and vultures

I was driving down a road in Sonoma County today and noticed a large kettle of turkey vultures flying above an agricultural area – probably numbering almost 40 birds! It was somewhat unusual, and certainly not something I’ve seen yet this year. I pulled over to take another look, knowing that often golden eagles will “hitch” a ride along with a group of vultures. As I was counting the vultures, boom!

Eagle!

IMG_1380 v1Golden Eagle in a kettle of Turkey Vultures / Sonoma County CA

I followed the kettle, which conveniently for me also was following the road in my direction! I made a number of stops as I followed it, and during my final stop the Eagle was kind enough to turn around and do a fly-over for me.

IMG_1339 v1juvenile Golden Eagle / Sonoma County CA

Such a beautiful bird –  as I observed it I noticed that it lacked any under-wing white patches, but its uniform feather coloring and uniform-length flight feathers indicated that it was probably a first-year hatch bird. It appears it has lost one of its left secondary feathers, which initially made me think perhaps it was older and undergoing a molt, but I still think this bird is a hatch year bird (meaning it hatched this spring).

IMG_1355 v1

As it glided back past me and rejoined the group of vultures, a dark morph Red-Tailed Hawk took exception to its presence and launched after the Eagle from its perch among a grove of eucalyptus trees, screaming loudly as it flapped quickly towards the larger bird …

 IMG_1367 v1vocalizing adult dark morph Red-Tailed Hawk / Sonoma County CA

IMG_1369 v1adult dark morph Red-Tailed Hawk / Sonoma County CA

The Red-Tail launched into the kettle and did a few dives at the Eagle, but they were half-hearted attempts – more bark than bite. The kettle of vultures, with the Eagle still flying in it, slowly floated away from the Red-Tail’s territory as it retreated back to a perch in the trees.

Here in the West, especially towards the coast it seems, we have more frequent occurrence of “dark morph” Red-Tails (they have a very diverse variety of feather patterns and tones), and often I’ve seen people mistake these birds for Eagles. To the untrained eye, this is totally understandable. But when you see the two together, there is little doubt about the ID. Golden Eagles are quite a bit larger, have distinctly different plumage when observed closely, different wing shapes, and different shapes/silhouettes when viewed from below. Turkey Vultures are only slightly smaller than Eagles, and both can hold their wings in a slight dihedral shape when soaring – to the naked eye they can appear very similar – but upon viewing them with binoculars, they also have very different silhouettes and feather colors, and an experienced observer can distinguish the two from each other even without binoculars.

IMG_1372 v1“bird on a mission” – adult dark morph Red-Tailed Hawk / Sonoma County CA

IMG_1322 v1nice comparison of a Turkey Vulture (left) and a juvenile (but full-size) Golden Eagle (right) /Sonoma County CA

It was really fun to see all the Vultures, the Eagle and the dark Red-Tail on this beautiful NorCal “summer” day.

IMG_1361 v1juvenile Golden Eagle / Sonoma County CA

2 responses

  1. Elaine Joy

    Hi Zach! I met you Saturday night and we chatted about birds. Great blog, I had no idea we had golden eagles as close as Sonoma!

    October 13, 2015 at 12:15 am

    • Thanks for checking out the blog and for the nice reply!

      October 13, 2015 at 1:47 am

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