The group of four arrived at a remote ridge in the Talladega National Forest before dawn on a Sunday in early February.
They set up a blind – a tarp hidden by vegetation and angled toward a pile of road-killed deer – and settled in for a long wait with no bathroom breaks. The goal: to capture and tag an elusive golden eagle.
“One thing you learn about going into the blind: Do not drink any coffee,” said Ray Bittle, one of the four and president of the Friends of the Talladega National Forest.
Bittle joined Jonathan Stober, biologist for the Shoal Creek District of the national forest, and two other biologists who’ve studied golden eagles for almost a decade.
The researchers captured two eagles that Sunday and hope to use the data gathered from the birds to define the species’ migration patterns. The eagles breed in Canada and travel south across the country for the winter through mountains increasingly proposed as the future home of wind farms. Biologists worry that without careful planning, that use would disrupt the birds’ migratory habits.
Stober said by phone Tuesday the Forest Service has been participating in the research project since 2011, which has meant many long days underneath a tarp.
“You’re just sitting there, hoping you won’t be waiting all day,” the biologist said.
Which is what made Sunday’s catch unique, he said. Two birds, one before dawn, in a single day – within an hour of each other? According to Stober, that’s almost unheard of.
The birds stuck around the Talladega National Forest after being released and appeared to be in close proximity to each other, according to tracking data supplied by the Forest Service.
The group of researchers also bagged two birds wintering in the forest last year: Pinhoti, a female, and Crotalus, a male.
The two tagged this year: Talladega, a nine-pound male, and Shoal, a 12-pound female. Three of the birds have been marked across the state so far in 2015.
Stober said data transmitted over 2014 gave researchers a window into the large birds’ routines; they were able to track Pinhoti all the way to her breeding grounds in Quebec.
She flew more than 1,800 miles from the Talladega National Forest, along a migratory route through the Midwest biologists didn’t know about before the eagle was tagged, he said.
Trish Miller, a West Virginia University biologist, has been tracking golden eagles across the Southeast for almost a decade, monitoring routes the birds use to migrate.
Bittle’s organization raised the money for Talladega’s transmitter, while the state Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries bought the other. Both were bought from a company created by a biologist who studies the birds with Miller.
She and other researchers involved with the tracking project are trying to figure out how wind farm development along the Appalachian chain could affect those age-old flight paths.
“The birds didn’t evolve with these big egg-beaters in the sky,” the biologist explained, referring to the windmill-like structures that generate electricity by harnessing the updrafts created around mountain ridges.
If the raptors become distracted or are using the same air currents powering turbines while flying near the structures, she said, they could be hit and killed.
Stober wants to make sure that with some talk of wind power development along ridges in the Talladega National Forest, room is left for eagles wintering in the area to soar comfortably.
“A forest is richer for having all of its parts,” he said. “The golden eagle is a fierce apex predator that deserves space to exist in the world.”
It’s not that Calhoun and Cleburne counties can’t have wind farms; Stober and other biologists say they just want to start a conversation about placing the farms in a way that won’t disrupt the raptors’ migration or winter territories.
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