Bald Eagle

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The Capture of Golden Eagle #A00
By Scott VanArsdale

March 11, 2003

Scott with A00
Can you see the blue stiches that connect the 4 straps of the satellite backpack?
(Click to enlarge.)

Count the challenges Scott faced before finally catching this elusive golden eagle.
Golden Eagle Facts

Kathy Michell with Scott

In December, Fred Linhart, who works for the New York DEC Fisheries office across the hall from me, told me that two golden eagles had returned to his friend’s family dairy farm in Delaware County, New York (where they have spent at least part of the last several winters). So I contacted Pete Nye to see if he would be interested in attaching a transmitter to one of the birds. With an affirmative reply, it was time to plan a strategy for capture. I never dreamed this project would turn into the challenge it did...

There were several capture methods to choose from, and I first decided to try using special leghold traps that have several features designed to prevent injury to an eagle. Before the actual trapping started, I wanted to get the eagles used to the bait. So I placed a road kill deer carcass in a field that the eagles frequented, in a spot that could be viewed through the window of the farm’s office 800+/- yards away, which could be used as a blind. I no sooner returned to my office when Eric (one of the farmers) called to say an eagle was feeding on the deer! So I drove the 20 miles back to the farm and saw a beautiful golden eagle feeding on my bait.

I could only trap on days when Pete was available to meet with me to attach the special satellite radio (Ptt) to any bird I caught. I have many other duties on my job, too, making actual “trap days” hard to find. The first day that fit both of our schedules was January 3rd. Unfortunately, we had a major snowstorm that day so I didn’t set traps. The next available day was January 14th. On the 13th, I put out a fresh deer carcass. Fred Linhart and I arrived well before daylight on the 14th, and wired the traps to one of the deer’s legs and placed them on the ground around the carcass. A golden eagle finally appeared at 12:15. It landed on the carcass, but only stayed for a moment, never stepping off the deer. That was it for that day. I returned the next day with one of our bald eagle nest-monitors, Kathy Maloney. We again set up all the traps before dawn, and watched a golden eagle fly by, but the bait was ignored the entire day.

There weren’t any more days that fit our schedules for awhile, but I visited the farm on occasion just to check things out. The goldens were still around, but the farmers told me that when the birds fed on the deer carcass they tended to stand on it. This wouldn’t work for me, as the traps are placed on the ground surrounding the carcass. So we decided to try a rocket net. I built a mock-box (a box that looks like the rocket net box) to get the birds used to having a box on site. I placed a fresh carcass on a flat area in a field about 200 yards from the road, which would be in range of the radio-controlled detonator switch for the rockets, and set the mock-box out too. (The original bait site was well out of range for the switch, so we couldn’t set up there.) On January 29th, Pete and Mike Clark arrived at the farm well before dawn and we set the rocket net up. We used my jeep as a blind. I had a good visit with the two guys that day, but the eagles never showed up. :

On February 5th, I checked in at the farm to see if the birds were around, and found both feeding on what was left of a wild turkey carcass out in the fields. A flock of over 100 turkeys winter on the farm, picking grain out of the manure that the farmers spread on the fields. In fact, that is probably why this pair of golden eagles winter in the area-- turkey dinner. So now I knew what I had to get for bait. I spread the word far and wide to have folks pick up any road killed turkeys they came across. Unfortunately and surprisingly, that first turkey carcass was a long time coming.

In the meantime, I decided to try one of the cottontail rabbit carcasses I collected. On five different days between February 12th and 26th, I wired a rabbit carcass to a bag of rocks buried in the snow. (So eagles couldn’t move the bait from the trap area.) I also attached the leghold traps to the rocks, so any trapped bird would be held in place. One thing that all five of these days had in common was the cold. Each of the mornings was below zero except for the one balmy 8 degree morning. The site I used was near where we set the rocket net up. I used my jeep as the blind rather than the farm office. At least the heater worked! I had company on one day, bald eagle nest monitors and photographers extra ordinaire Lou Buscher Jr. and Ralph Speer. The other days were spent reading books as I waited for action. I saw the eagles each day, but never had any luck getting them to the bait. I was getting desperate!

Finally, on February 28th I obtained the first of several turkey carcasses. I placed one at the original bait site and the eagles found it fast. On March 3rd, I set out a new turkey and the traps, now beginning day 9 of trapping. I was joined by my co-worker, Liz DeJoy. Shortly after 1:00, we had a golden eagle on the bait! I watched it feed for an hour and a half, but my heart sank when it flew off! I went to the site and found that four of the six traps had been sprung. I’m still not sure why they didn’t catch the bird. I discussed the situation with Pete, and tried a few detail changes the next morning. I didn’t have to wait long, as one of the goldens was again feeding on the turkey carcass by 6:58 am. It flew off at 8:03, and that was that for the rest of the day. This time, three of the traps had again sprung, with no visible sign that the bird had ever been even temporarily caught.

It was time for a major strategy change. Pete was now done with his bald eagle capture work in Sullivan County, so his net was now available. I chose a new site for the rocket net attempt, near a little cabin that we could use as a blind. I put out a fresh turkey carcass and the mock box.

I met Kathy Michell at the farm at 4:30 am on March 8th. It was above zero for a change, and we each pulled a sled loaded with equipment, food, water, cameras, binoculars and two turkey carcasses that Kathy found. We had the net set as the day’s first light appeared on the eastern horizon, and into the cabin we went. At 6:22 the first eagle showed up. It perched in a tree behind the net, and we commented how great it would be to get Pete out of bed with a call, saying that we had a bird waiting for a Ptt! But we were a bit premature as the bird wouldn’t come down to the bait and finally flew away. An eagle appeared again between 8:00 and 9:00 and perched in a tree. It circled low over the bait but flew off. By this time, we were getting chilly and decide to light a fire in the woodstove. We didn’t know if the smoke coming out of the chimney would make the eagles more wary, so we had initially planned to avoid using it. At about 1:15, both birds showed up but once again avoided the bait. We figured they were uncomfortable about the net. After they flew off I told Kathy it didn’t look good, and we decided to quit by 2:00. Just at 2:00 I started to pack things up in the cabin, and Kathy exclaimed “Bird! Bird!” as she saw a bird fly by the side window towards the bait. She said it had a white band on its tail and asked me if one of the goldens was an immature. I knew at least one of the birds was an adult, but wasn’t sure about the other. Kathy had a good view out the window to the bait, but I wasn’t in a position to look without moving in front of the window and perhaps spooking the bird. So I grabbed the radio/trigger switch and excitedly listened as Kathy gave the play-by-play as the bird circled, landed and then walked to the bait. When it started to eat she asked me if that was indeed a golden and handed me the binoculars. I inched up to where I could get a view and looked through the glasses. I saw a large dark bird with lighter feathers on its head, and immediately confirmed it was a golden! It was rapidly putting its head down to eat and lifting it up again. The trick is to pull the switch when the head is down, so it takes a split second longer for the bird to take wing. So we tried to get the rhythm of the bird’s movements. Just as the head started to go down I pulled the switch and the net was in the air. It floated over the bird and came down. Kathy yelled, “You got him!” as she headed for the door. She won the sprint to the net, but we had a surprise when we got there. Our bird wasn’t a golden at all! It was a hawk that neither of us could identify at the time, but which we later confirmed was a rough legged hawk in the dark phase. We were both embarrassed by our mistake, but couldn’t help laughing about it. There was no harm done as we were through for the day anyway. At least we knew we could set the net properly. For excuses, the bait and bird were skylined from our vantage point, so it was difficult to get a size reference. We were also mighty tired from our early start to the day. But maybe we just saw what we wanted to see after being teased by the real thing!

The next day was Sunday, but I went back to the site to paint the mock-box brown, to more closely match the real net box. I was glad we watched the weather forecast and decided against a capture attempt this day, as it was far too windy to use the net. Monday was still too windy but I returned to put out a fresh turkey carcass. I accidentally scared both birds away from the bait area as I approached.

Tuesday, March 11th would turn out to be different. Kathy and I met again at 4:30. This time it was 5 below zero. What a winter. We stayed plenty warm on the 6/10 mile hike up the hill to the cabin, but lit a fire as soon as we got there hoping it would quit smoking by daylight. We noticed a problem in the way I had packed the net after our “mistaken” shot, and quickly re-packed it. Kathy risked frostbite to her fingers and did the lion’s share of the wire connections that are needed (thank you, Kathy!), and we were in the cabin as it started to get light out. As it turned out though, we didn’t have to rush, as the only action we had was crows visiting the bait. Until 11:30 that is, when I saw a big dark bird on the ground near the bait. And it wasn’t a rough- legged hawk either! At long last, it seemed the knock on the door of success would be answered! I could feel my rapid heart-beat as I reached for the switch; both Kathy and I were shaking! It seemed to take the bird hours (about 90 seconds actually) to walk the few steps to the turkey. It started to eat, and luckily scattered a bunch of turkey feathers in the process. The wind was pretty stiff but cyclical, and I used the feathers to judge its strength. After a time, we finally got a moment when the feathers were still and the birds’s head was down. A loud bang answered my pull on the switch as the rockets launched and the net spread out over the bird. It was my turn to yell “we got him!” Kathy again won the sprint and this time we both knew we had a golden eagle! It’s hard to express what such a moment feels like, but “elation” is a good word to start with!

It took 11 days of perseverance, but in the end, we accomplished our mission; A00 is now “on-line” for all of you to enjoy. I hope you do!

Many thanks Pete and Kathy for their help and technical assistance! And many thanks to the farm family of Eric, Mark, Jeff, Bryan, Carol, Nancy and Wilbur for allowing us to use their land, equipment, office and cabin for the project. Special thanks to Eric for all of the coffee and donuts that made those frigid mornings more bearable!

Scott VanArsdale
Fish and Wildlife Technician


Meet Golden Eagle A00

Kathy Michell and Scott VanArsdale


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