Contributed by Lois Ports for Bristlecone Audubon with photography by Lois Ports, Joe Doucette and Mackenzie Jeffress
January is a great time to take a drive and watch for raptors. Winter brings birds of prey from more northern areas such as Idaho to our region where the winters are not as severe. Both golden eagles and bald eagles spend winters in Elko County.
Bald eagles are more typically thought of as a sea or fish eagle found along large rivers and coastlines. Most of the Bald Eagles seen in Nevada are wintering birds although there is a record of one pair of breeding bald eagles active in Northeastern Nevada and the Lake Tahoe area has reports of occasional breeding pairs. Bald Eagles in the winter are not as strongly tied to water sources and can often be found in valley areas of the Great Basin. They depend mostly on carrion and road kill for food. They can take down live prey given the opportunity and are known for stealing food from other animals. It is estimated that there are between 150 – 300 Bald Eagles in Nevada during the winter. Most of these are found at Lake Mead and Lake Mohave.
Many golden eagles are permanent residents of the Great Basin. In addition some immature golden eagles will move into the region during the cold of winter. Studies have shown that some of the local juvenile golden eagles will move seasonally within the state too. Golden eagles are powerful hunters, when diving towards their prey the eagle holds its wings partially closed against its body and its legs up against its tail. They can reach speeds of up to 150 mph when diving after prey. Their main prey are rabbits and game birds such as chukar and Hungarian partridge. They have been known to take down adult deer by repeatedly attacking the neck of the animal.
According to Mackenzie Jeffress from the Nevada Department of Wildlife the Great Basin is considered one of the strongholds for breeding Golden Eagles. Their population here had been declining but over the last two years as the rabbit populations have increased so too have the golden eagle populations. There is some ongoing research in the state utilizing radio collars in central and southern Nevada especially in areas where wind and solar farms are present.
The Christmas Bird Count, the Nevada Winter Raptor Survey, and Breeding Bird Surveys are citizen science projects which provide data to help monitor the health of both wintering and breeding populations of these and other birds. People also can record their sightings on Ebird.com or call the Nevada Department of Wildlife (775-777-2300) if you know of a breeding location for eagles.
There are other ways you can help too. Since both bald and golden eagles use carrion and road kill during the winter it is important that drivers be alert and slow down when approaching birds feeding along the road. Every year Mackenzie is called concerning birds hit by cars. It averages 1 to 2 bald eagles and up to 10 golden eagles a year that are injured or killed in these situations. Another concern for both birds is lead poisoning due to eating carrion containing lead ammunition.
Some areas to see eagles close to Elko during the winter are the Spring Creek Marina, Lee, and South Fork State Recreation Area. Starr Valley and Clover Valley are also great spots for both types of eagles.
If you are interested in learning more about both the flora and fauna of our area, you can send an email to BristleconeAudubon@gmail.com to be put on our newsletter mailing list or find us on Facebook under Bristlecone Audubon Chapter. Join us on Friday, January 12, 2018 at 7 p.m. in room 208 of the Carl A. Diekhans Center for Industrial Technology (1050 Chilton Circle) on the campus of Great Basin College when Nycole Burton, Wildlife Biologist at BLM and Ali Helmig, Biodiversity Coordinator at the Great Basin Institute will be giving a presentation about some of Nevada’s special status species.