Local biologists count nearly 3 dozen bald eagles in annual survey

IRON COUNTY — Local wildlife officials recently counted a total of 35 bald eagles at three different locations in Iron County.

A bald eagle is seen roosting in a stand of trees, Iron County, Utah, Jan. 10, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News | Click to enlarge

The count, conducted Friday evening, was performed in conjunction with the National Midwinter Bald Eagle Survey made each year to track the populations of the popular national symbol.

Adam Kavalunas, a Utah Division of Wildlife Resources biologist, set up his telescope Friday evening alongside state Route 130 in between Enoch and Minersville and pointed it at a stand of trees on private property on the west side of the highway.

“We’re just here to document what we see on this day or about the same time of year, every year,” he said, noting that he typically has counted between 15-25 birds at that location during the annual survey for each of the past few years.

“For some reason, they just really like to roost in these trees every night in the winter,” he said. 

Although no birds were visible when Kavalunas first arrived on scene just after 4:15 p.m., within the space of an hour, a dozen eagles swooped in to roost among the leafless branches.

If bald eagles are within earshot as they begin to gather and roost near each other, he said.

This photo taken through a telescope shows multiple bald eagles roosting in a stand of trees, Iron County, Utah, Jan. 8, 2021 | Photo courtesy of Adam Kavalunas, St. George News / Cedar City News | Click to enlarge

“You’ll hear them start talking. It’s an interesting sound, probably not what you expect. It’s just kind of this weird crackly noise, but when they start talking, you can look around and you’ll see other birds in the area coming in.”

Kavalunas said although he mainly focuses on prairie dogs in his job as a DWR biologist, he does spend time studying and documenting various other animals, including birds of prey, bats and other non-game species.

Friday evening, with just a hint of a breeze, partly cloudy skies and temperatures around 40 degrees F, Kavalunas counted a dozen bald eagles. The last three were seen when it was too dark to see the color of the birds’ heads, he said, meaning he had to classify their maturity as “unknown.”

A bald eagle’s head feathers turn white as the bird reaches adulthood, usually at around 4 or 5 years old, Kavalunas explained, adding that male and female birds are virtually indistinguishable from one another.

“If you have a pair standing next to each other and they’re both adults and one is a little smaller than the other, you’d typically say the smaller one’s most likely a male and the larger one would be a female,” he said, “but you can’t really tell just with one bird.”

Immature or juvenile bald eagles, on the other hand, have brown feathers on their heads and are sometimes mistaken for golden eagles.

Wildlife biologist Adam Kavalunas writes down data during annual bald eagle survey, Iron County, Utah, Jan. 8, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

“We also do look for golden eagles, but it’s not likely that we’ll see any here today,” he said. “They don’t typically roost together. I have seen golden eagles here in the past, but more than likely, we’re going to see pretty much all balds.”

In addition to the 12 bald eagles seen by Kavalunas, DWR biologists Keith Day and Jessica Van Woeart reported seeing five and 18 birds, respectively, that same evening in the two other locations they monitor in Iron County.

According to DWR figures, the Cedar City biologists have counted an average of 60 eagles in the annual survey each year over the past several years, with the mean counts being broken down by the three regularly monitored roost locations as follows: 28 at Cottonwood, 18 at Rush Lake and 14 at Summit Canyon.

“The overall numbers this year were below average,” Kavalunas said. “Of course, it’s only a one-day survey, so numbers can vary.”

The bald eagle, the official national bird of the United States of America, was one of the first species to be protected under the Endangered Species Act of 1967, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Decades of successful conservation efforts have helped bring its numbers from an estimated 400 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states in the early 1960s to more than 10,000 pairs today. The species was reclassified from endangered to threatened in 1995, then delisted entirely in 2007.

Kavalunas said the eagles should be visible in their favorite winter roosting sites in the area for another month or two.

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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