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Panhandle Passages: Home of the Eagles

A golden eagle flies into its nest in the Pine Ridge. The wingspan of a golden eagle can exceed seven feet.

If you’re like me, you probably saw numerous bald eagles in Nebraska this winter and early spring — if not on the wing then in photographs circulating the Internet. The bald eagle’s resurgence is a true conservation success story.

Today, though, I find it appropriate to give a little publicity to the bald eagles’ lesser mentioned cousin, the golden eagle.

When I told NEBRASKAland associate editor Jeff Kurrus that I planned to photograph golden eagles at a nest in a remote area of the Pine Ridge, he gave me one piece of advice: “Don’t get eaten.”

I must say, Kurrus’ words and this video came to mind as I was perched high on a ridge-top watching a pair of eagles fly overhead not far from their nest at a nearby cliff. As much as I’d like to think I was being sneaky, I’m sure an animal that can spot a hare from a mile away had no problem noticing me and my gear moving up the steep slope to get a better look.

From my perch to theirs.

The video I just referenced shows a young bighorn sheep meeting its demise, but eagles more commonly feed on small mammals. Wascally wabbits, and the like. My brief web research indicates that attacks on large animals, especially humans, are much more rare — a finding for which this photographer is thankful. Regardless, with their powerful talons and remarkable air speed, golden eagles are extremely efficient predators and would certainly match up well against any living thing in this area.

The golden eagle is larger than the bald eagle and receives more reverence in other parts of the world. The golden is the most common national animal on earth, an honor it has claimed in Albania, Germany, Austria, Mexico and Kazakhstan. Eagles also have great significance in many American Indian cultures.

The prowess of the eagle, in general, also has long been revered in sports, as the bird has become the most common mascot in college athletics. The big raptors hold a special place in my heart, considering my roots as a Chadron State Eagle.

Birding resources such as this one show that golden eagles are found at points throughout the Nebraska Panhandle. The cliffs in this country, which are adjacent to open lands good for spotting prey, make for prime nesting habitat. Once a golden eagle finds a good place to nest, it doesn’t give it up anytime soon. Nebraska Game and Parks Commission biologist Greg Schenbeck tells me that he has observed eagles at this particular nesting site since his childhood.

Joel Jorgensen, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission nongame bird program manager, said he has a fair degree of confidence that there are 30-50 breeding pairs of golden eagles in the state.

“Breeding is now essentially restricted to the Panhandle with most nests located on escarpments,” he said. “In the remainder of the state, golden eagles are rare migrants and winter visitors, being the least common in far eastern Nebraska.”

I plan to return to the nest in the coming weeks to improve upon my small collection of photos. The next time, I’m likely to see some nestlings.

When in the Pine Ridge, one is sure to see something magnificent — animal, plant or thing. As I was getting ready to make my descent from the ridge-top, I gazed toward the horizon and saw another gorgeous northwestern Nebraska sunset. I know it may be trite to personify the actions of animals, but with such a beautiful view it’s easy to see why the eagles return to this nesting site year after year. I’m ready to go back, too.

A"bird's eye view" of a northwestern Nebraska sunset.

Justin Haag of Chadron is a public information officer for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and regional editor for NEBRASKAland magazine. He can be reached at justin.haag@nebraska.gov or 308-430-8515.

About Justin Haag

Justin Haag has served the Commission as a public information officer in the Panhandle since 2013. His duties include serving as regional editor for NEBRASKAland Magazine. Haag was raised in southwestern Nebraska, where he developed a love for fishing, hunting and other outdoor pursuits. After earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Chadron State College in 1996, he worked four years as an editor and reporter at newspapers in Chadron and McCook. Prior to joining the Commission in 2013, he worked 12 years as a communicator at Chadron State, serving as the institution’s media and public relations coordinator the last five. He and his wife, Cricket, live in Chadron, and have two children.

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