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Bald eagles get all the glory, but marmots and rabbits know the truth: The golden is North America’s largest and fiercest bird of prey. This keen-eyed hunter—with vision five times sharper than that of humans—dive-bombs its prey at speeds approaching 200 mph before striking with razor-sharp talons. Wrongly considered a threat to livestock, goldens were heavily hunted (often from aircraft) until they received federal protection in 1962. Today, the mountains of western North America host the continent’s largest population of golden eagles, though a growing number are found in the East. Every fall, goldens migrate south to better hunting grounds—an exciting opportunity for hikers on both sides of the continent to observe these majestic birds in flight.
After spending the summer breeding in northern Canada, goldens fly south as colder autumn weather sets in. By following the prevailing winds and catching updrafts along ridges, they can conserve energy and still cover more than 200 miles a day. Normally hard to spot, golden eagles become more visible during migration as they’re funneled by ridgelines into three major flyways along the Appalachians, Rockies, and Sierra. “The terrain creates a bottleneck effect,” says biologist Rob Domenech, who traps and bands eagles for the Raptor View Research Institute in Missoula. Here’s a closer look at the golden’s three major flyways.
Eagles summering in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest follow the Intermountain Flyway to take advantage of updrafts along the eastern Cascades and Sierra Nevada. Hawkwatch International’s observation site at Chelan Ridge, WA, averages 127 golden sightings annually. Some eagles travel far; raptors from Denali National Park have been tracked to northern Mexico.
The Rocky Mountain Flyway attracts the most eagles; fall counts at Alberta’s Mt. Lorette station average 3,300. These birds typically disperse when they reach Montana, with some eagles settling nearby while others continue southeast. Only about 150 goldens reach New Mexico each year; most spend the winter in Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado.
After nesting and breeding in northern Quebec, goldens follow the Appalachian Flyway through New England’s mountains and the mid-Atlantic states to winter in the lower Midwest, Texas, and Mexico. Last October, observers counted 171 golden eagles soaring over Pennsylvania’s Hawk Mountain, a prime raptor viewing spot along the 300-mile-long Kittatinny Ridge.
Where to Find Gold
Helena National Forest, MT
In early October, you can count more than 100 goldens a day from Rogers Pass, where winds gust up to 50 mph. For the best views, climb the Continental Divide Trail from the north side of the pass off MT 200, east of Lincoln. Crest the ridge in one mile, and train your binoculars to the north. (406) 449-5201; fs.fed.us/r1/helena
Cibola National Forest, NM
Goldens here catch updrafts on the Manzano Mountains, 35 miles south of Albuquerque. To reach a count site, head west 9 miles on FR 245 from Manzano to Capilla Peak Campground. Park 600 feet before the fire tower and hike 1.5 miles on the trail marked by a hawk silhouette. (505) 346-3900; fs.fed.us/r3/cibola
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, PA
Pennsylvania’s Blue Mountains host the largest concentration of golden eagles in the East. Between mid-August and mid-December, watch goldens glide southwest along the ridgelines. At the visitor center, pick up your $7 trail pass and hike the Skyline Trail 2 miles to East Rocks. (610) 756-6961; hawkmountain.org
Get Eagle Eyes Raptors are most active at midday, when heat radiating from the ground produces thermals and strong winds. All eagles avoid flying in fog, and are less active during rain and snow. Goldens tend to be solitary raptors, and will often hunt alone or in a mating pair. Identify them by their gold-flecked necks, small heads, gray tail, and slightly upturned wingtips.