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Vermont doctoral candidate studies golden eagles in Virginia

BASTIAN, Va. – The golden eagle is one of nature’s most majestic birds. With a wing span often more than 7-feet wide, golden eagles can be a breathtaking vision in the wild, but their habitat in North America continues to shrink.

“We don’t have a handle on the population of golden eagles in the Virginia and West Virginia mountains,” Dave Kramer, a doctoral candidate at Virginia Tech said. Kramer has studied golden and bald eagles for many years, and has been monitoring golden eagles in southwestern Virginia in recent years.

“There are no golden eagle nests in the United States east of the Mississippi,” Kramer said. “There have been none since the 1990s.” He said that the golden eagles that come through here are from eastern Canada and Newfoundland. “Golden eagles are birds of prey and forage the ridge lines. They winter in this area.”

Kramer teaches classes in the Tech Center for Geo Space, but the study he is conducting is sponsored by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, as well as with the support of departments of game in Pennsylvania and Maine, West Virginia University as well as other agencies that have an interest in the region’s golden eagle population.

At least part of the impetus for the study came as a result of the potential for wind energy development in the region, Kramer said. “Since we don’t know the total golden eagle population, it’s hard to know what kind of impact there would be,” he said. “If there are 2,000 golden eagles migrating through the area, if you lose one or two to a wind energy tower, it might not have a severe impact on the population. However, if there are 400 to 500 golden eagles here, losing two to a wind turbine would have a greater impact on the population.”

The study involves capturing the golden eagles, putting global positioning satellite transmitters on them and releasing them. “We are also collecting information related to possible mercury and lead contamination,” Kramer said. “With bald eagles, we have significant data.” He said the study will provide much-needed data on the golden eagle population.

Kramer uses rocket nets to capture the birds unharmed. “We bait the net with deer carcasses, get out before the sun comes up and sit in a blind. When an eagle lands, the rocket closes the net on them.” He said that he has never heard of an injury to a golden or a bald eagle as a result of this method of trapping them.

“We trapped last spring up until mid-March,” he said. “They start coming down in October or November. People who have seen woodland raptors in the forest rarely forget what they saw,” he said. “It’s amazing to watch them maneuver through the trees.”

He said that Burkes Garden, Va., is well known regionally for its bald eagles, but added that, “Clinch Mountain is a huge wintering site for golden eagles.” He said the work can involve long hours of waiting, but the work itself is rewarding.

“I don’t think most people recognize the size of the golden eagle population we have here,” Kramer said. “I feel privileged to be able to work on this project.”