Seventy-five feet. That’s how far away a golden eagle perched on a rock while glancing over its shoulder at me. My slow and deliberate approach while remaining in my wildlife blind (my vehicle) may have helped the bird maintain its calm demeanor and steadfast presence.
Box Elder County excels in the winter as a raptor-watching destination. The expansive and rugged spaces offer winged carnivores solitude and plenty of prey due to the mosaic of agricultural lands and range. Elevated perches, however, are at a premium, which is why large birds are easy to see. Eagles, hawks and falcons use whatever perches are available from rocks to power poles to idle irrigation systems.
I could see the brown chunk of a bird ahead and off the road as I drove along the east side of the Promontory Mountains. But its continued composure as I pulled onto the shoulder was not a passive state; far from it. My stopping flushed four western meadowlarks from the grasses that sprouted around the rocky tumble of the eagle’s perch. The big bird watched each flush and later return, with a swiveling head reminiscent of watching the action on a basketball court.
While the eagle watched the meadowlarks, I watched the eagle. Golden eagles are truly behemoths. They stretch two and a half feet from tip of the bill to tip of the tail and sport a six-and-a-half-foot wingspan. That huge wing surface area generates enough lift to launch their 10-pound body weight into the air.
I did a quick accounting of the handful of Utah species that’s larger — swans, pelicans, cranes and turkeys, with bald eagles matching the golden’s size.
The eagle’s facing away allowed me to assess its plumage and age. The bird was mostly dark chocolate brown with a little white mottling in the wings and solid white at the base of the otherwise dark tail. The head feathers were tipped with the golden tinge that gives the species its name. The white, especially in the tail, meant the bird was young; adding the bird’s exceptionally yellow gape and skin at the base of the upper bill suggested the bird was a juvenile, or less than a year old.
The great bird and its environment presented a breathtaking winter scene. The gray perch and the others that had tumbled down the grassy slope around it weren’t merely rocks; they were craggy clues to the area’s ancient geology, covered with patches of bright orange lichens. And it was snowing hard.
The bird seemed to take no notice of the flakes pelting it as if it were wearing the most remarkable insulated Gore-Tex parka. In fact, feathers are likely superior for their insulating and cooling properties while weighing next to nothing compared to any product man can come up with.
Another golden eagle perched on an antenna on nearby Golden Spike Road demonstrated the warmth and impermeability of the feather jacket. The heavy snowfall had piled up on the bird’s back, scapulars and folded wings in a large white triangle. The warm, 10-pound body was merely a half inch or so below that snow, but none of it was melting. It was like the bird was wearing insulation with a thermal resistance rating of R-60. We should all be so lucky to have roofs with R-ratings like that.
The snow did melt on the head feathers of the eagle perched on the gray volcanic rock. Periodically, the bird shook its head perhaps to free the feathers from the weight of the water droplets. Then the tawny head plumage stood out from the fierce visage in sharp spikes — Golden Spikes, of course.
I later approached from the opposite direction and saw that the bird’s huge yellow talons on the rock were completely covered by the fluffy lower belly and tarsi feathers like the flounce of a floor-length skirt. What a shame. I would like to have seen the bird’s weaponry that allows it to snatch a fleeing black-tailed jackrabbit in a death grip or hold firmly a winter-killed deer carcass so the eagle’s sharp hooked bill can do its work.
A third golden eagle of the day was still perched on the same power pole near Public Shooting Grounds WMA when I passed the location more than an hour after I first saw it there. The storm emphasized the tenacity of this creature. The bird looked like it belonged in the driving snow, while I was heading home to take cover.
Kristin Purdy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.