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Young Balds Resemble Goldens -- We’ve noticed a little confusion regarding how to tell a bald eagle from a golden eagle here on Catalina. The eagle on the cover of this month’s Island Naturalist is actually an immature bald eagle. But don't feel bad if you guessed, "Golden eagle." Once you finish this edition, you'll know how to get it right! And in the spirit of providing useful, ongoing nature tips, we thought we’d focus this month’s Island Naturalist on eagle identification and see if we can clear things up.

Goldens Are Fly-by-Nighters Here -- The first step is to look at your sighting logically. We have very few goldens stopping by Catalina  and, as far as we know, none living here. Your odds of seeing an immature bald greatly exceed those of seeing a golden of any age. So begin by assuming it’s a bald, then look for field marks that would get you a positive ID.  I’ve been told by observers that they see the same two golden eagles every day on the same perch. This alone gives me reason to suspect that they are likely to be bald eagles. One straying golden to the Island would be one thing; but a pair seemingly taking up residence would be really unusual. Also, since we have a new crop of young balds after the breeding season, the odds of seeing balds go up.

Snow on the Roof -- Adult bald eagles do indeed have white heads and tails. If you see the white head and tail on an otherwise dark brown to black eagle, you’re looking at an adult bald eagle. Easy.

Wings and Legs -- Immature bald eagles do NOT have white heads and tails, and neither do golden eagles of any age. That makes telling immature balds from all goldens a little trickier. What’s the best method for figuring this out? Here are two key field marks to look for:

Bald Eagle Golden Eagle
Legs not feathered down to toes (only seen at close range). Legs feathered down  to toes (only seen at close range).
When viewed in flight from below, bald eagles have white feathers in what is essentially their “armpit” or “wingpit” (the technical name is “underwing coverts”). Goldens don’t have white in the “wingpit.” They have white that’s seen out in the flight feathers. Those are the bigger feathers out near the trailing edge of the wing.

Eagle-Eye on Eagles
-- If you want to go deeper into eagle ID, the following link will take you to a definitive publication that gives you all the goods. It’s by Brian Wheeler and William Clark, two of the most respected bird of prey specialists in the country. The images at the right are taken from this excellent publication, The Field Identification of North American Eagles:

Fine-Feathered View in Flight -- For the casual observer, the presence or absence of feathered legs on a perched bird and the location of the white on the underwing coverts of a bird in flight will get you to the right call.

If you can’t see the details listed above, and the bird flies off, the safe way to handle the sighting is to tell your guest, “I didn’t get a good enough look to be sure, but the odds are that it was an immature bald eagle.” Feel free to add details regarding the likelihood of sighting goldens here.

Why are more eagles being sighted in Catalina, instigating this column? Because they have managed to survive DDT poisoning, but their fight against the chemical isn’t over. DDT Danger Remains

Issue #4 / All About Eagles


Bald Later in Life
DDT Danger Remains
Grand Ole Osprey
Fact or Fiction: Island-Mainland Tie?
Did You Know…Two Mice on Catalina

Photo by Frank Hein

The image above and in the Island Naturalist emailed to you is an immature bald eagle.


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