West Virginia has earned a reputation as a popular winter destination for skiers and snowboarders. A West Virginia University researcher has discovered that it’s also a prized winter home for golden eagles.

Todd Katzner, a wildlife and fisheries resources research assistant professor in WVU’s Division of Forestry and Natural Resources, has found that the Mountain State has more golden eagles wintering within its borders than just about anywhere else east of the Mississippi.

Katzner has been studying the species’ population trends for five years, working with colleagues at the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, as well as biologists and managers across the Appalachians, from upstate New York to Kentucky and North Carolina.

“For years people have watched golden eagles migrate through Pennsylvania, without really knowing where they wintered ” Katzner explained. “We trapped some of those birds in Pennsylvania, outfitted them with Global Positioning System telemetry tags, and started to notice that they all wintered in West Virginia.

After observing that, Katzner and his colleagues also got in touch with a few biologists from the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, “and they told us they see golden eagles fairly regularly. At that point we started to try to trap in winter.”

To do that, the researchers set out deer carcasses and installed motion sensitive trail cameras to record eagle activity at West Virginia sites where eagles had been spotted. The birds come in to feed on the deer and every time they move the camera takes a picture of them – up to one picture every minute.

“Once the trail cameras were in place, it wasn’t a big jump to start recording which birds and how many were coming into these sites.”

The relative health of this population isn’t clear, which Katzner says “is an important reason we are conducting this study.

“The eastern golden eagle population is thought to be small – probably between 1,000 and 2,000 individuals, but nobody really knows. Until 1997 golden eagles bred in Maine and they once also bred in Vermont and New York, but now they are extinct from the eastern USA. Today they breed in Quebec and Labrador and migrate to our area in winter,” Katzner said.

The largest winter populations seem to be found in the Monongahela National Forest, which meets the eagles’ need for privacy, space and prey. According to Katzner, the forest environment offers “remote locations, good habitat, plenty of food,” in the form of West Virginia’s abundant deer population, everything an eagle needs to eat!

Winter visitors to the forest shouldn’t expect to see an eagle in every tree, however.

“These eagles are very secretive and difficult to see,” Katzner said. “There are probably hundreds of them in West Virginia, but most people never see them.”

The best way to see a golden eagle is to watch carefully. Traveling in the national forest and being quiet and careful tends to present opportunities to observe them.

Katzner’s research is conducted in collaboration with the recently formed Eastern Golden Eagle working group, an international group formed support research and conservation efforts for eastern Golden Eagles on breeding, migratory and wintering grounds and to raise conservation awareness about this rare population.

-WVU-

dw/02/02/11

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