Winter Wanderers – Golden Eagles

Golden Eagle

Many residents of Pennsylvania are fortunate to catch frequent glimpses of Bald Eagles throughout the year, often flying over highways and urbanized areas, highlighting the dramatic recovery of our national symbol. However, from mid-fall through early spring there is another eagle that may be encountered by dedicated (and lucky) observers – the Golden Eagle.

Comparing Golden and Bald Eagles

Immature Bald Eagles can be misidentified as Golden Eagles due to their dark plumage, interspersed with white patches, but there are several other distinguishing features:

  • Season: Bald Eagles are year-round residents while Golden Eagles migrate through Pennsylvania, with just a few wintering over. Any eagle seen from spring through mid-fall is most likely a Bald Eagle.
  • Shape: Both eagles have a wingspan of 6-7 feet, but their head and tail proportions vary. The heads and tails of Bald Eagles project from the body in relatively equal length, similar to that of Common Ravens. However, the Golden Eagle’s long tail extends roughly twice the length of the head, resembling the silhouette of the widespread Red-tailed Hawk.
  • Flight Style: Bald Eagles are known for their “flat” wing appearance when soaring, while Golden Eagles lift their wings slightly above their bodies in a slight “V” known as a “dihedral.” Check out a soaring Turkey Vulture for an example of a strong dihedral.
  • Habitat: Bald Eagles range throughout all of Pennsylvania, but they have a strong association with large bodies of water – lakes, rivers, and wetland complexes, making them more predictable, especially during the spring breeding season. Golden Eagles in Pennsylvania are generally associated with our rugged, rocky ridges as they migrate to and from their breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic.

Golden Eagles between Fall and Spring Migration

Golden Eagles are found across the Northern Hemisphere and are amongst the world’s hardiest raptors. Tolerating conditions challenging to humans, they migrate late in the fall, often in freezing and windy conditions, long after most hawk watchers have retired for the season. The Kittatinny Ridge features two excellent hawkwatches for catching a late fall Golden Eagle. Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Kempton is the world’s first raptor sanctuary and features the ADA accessible Silhouette Trail. Seventy-five miles down the Ridge is Waggoner’s Gap, protected by Central Pennsylvania Conservancy in 2007, and now owned by the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Waggoners Gap Hawkwatch
Waggoner’s Gap Hawkwatch straddling Cumberland and Perry Counties Photo courtesy of Jason Andrew Beale

Despite their late arrival, Goldens are an early spring migrant, starting north in February with their numbers peaking in mid-March. The Tussey Mountain Spring Hawkwatch, located just south of State College, is a dedicated spring watch for Golden Eagles.

From December through February, few Golden Eagles remain in Pennsylvania, with the majority continuing south into the central Appalachians. Unlike the breeding season, wintering birds don’t have a fixed territory and are focused on finding food and conserving energy. Along with Bald Eagles and many other species of wildlife, scavenging carcasses provides an important winter food source though Golden Eagles also feed on medium-sized mammals such as muskrat and cottontail rabbit.

Protecting Eagles

Despite the Bald Eagle’s dramatic recovery and the Golden Eagle’s regular, if rare status, they continue to face numerous threats. The good news is that we can eliminate or reduce these threats through the following actions:

  • Observe at a safe distance (for the birds) – if the bird is responding to your actions, you are too close. Binoculars, spotting scopes, and cameras can provide a balance between the viewing experience and conservation
  • Hunters can choose non-lead ammunition – Eagles and other avian scavengers have highly acidic stomachs that can dissolve lead fragments from carcasses into their bloodstream, leading to seizures, paralysis, and death. Non-lead ammunition such as copper provides hunters with a fast and accurate alternative to lead without the unintended consequences on other wildlife.
  • Support the protection of natural lands – As large, highly mobile predators and scavengers, eagles require large tracts of natural land to breed, hunt, and migrate. Protecting predator habitat, in turn protects a multitude of wildlife, including game species. Check out your local land trust or bird club to learn more about conserving avian habitat.

Golden Eagles are birds of the wilderness, at home from deserts to the Himalayas. Most casual observers in the mid-Atlantic and northeast will never see one, making each sighting a special occasion. Whether you’re willing to brave a windy and frozen ridgetop or scan a deer carcass in a winter field from the warmth of a car, a dedicated bird watcher will eventually catch a glimpse of this magnificent raptor.

Jason Andrew Beale Jason is the executive director with Central Pennsylvania Conservancy, a land trust serving south central Pennsylvania. He formerly directed Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center’s (Penn State University) Wildlife Education & Engagement Program where he worked closely with Tussey, an adult Golden Eagle.


Bald Eagle

Code of Birding Ethics (American Birding Association)

Golden Eagle (All About Birds)