Updated: Dec 30, 2021
Winter’s coming! Oh, so not excited? Well, its one of the best times of the year for birdwatchers to see eagles. Fewer leaves to obscure the view of a flyover near the river and a season when eagles are focusing in on nest territories with a mate, so are more noticeable. The question is, what species of eagle are you looking at?
It takes over five years for a Bald Eagle to fully mature, with many different looks to juvenile/immature birds as they moult into that stunning pinnacle of adulthood‒a bright, white head and tail bookending the dark body--an obvious ID to most observers. It’s those immature stages that cause confusion and mis-identification between Bald Eagles and the Golden Eagle...and even Osprey.
Adult Golden Eagles are dark all over, except for the nape on the head which shows a golden streaky hue in the right light. Juvenile Golden Eagles also have distinct white patches in the middle of their underwings, in contrast to the random, white splotchy-looking feathering on sub-adult Bald Eagles. I look for white armpits and whitish body as quick evidence of a young Bald Eagle. Another characteristic of immature Goldens is the wide, dark tail band contrasting against a white, unstreaked base of tail. (See photo above) Young Bald Eagles have a thin tail band but it isn’t as wide and distinct as on the Golden and the white part of the tail shows dark edges on each feather.
Bald and Golden Eagles are quite close in size, massive compared to Red-tailed Hawks, but in flight silhouette, the Golden appears to have a smaller head than a Bald Eagle, one that doesn’t extend as far beyond the wingspan. One is also more likely to see a Golden Eagle out on the rural roads than in the city. Pull out a field guide and compare the variations in plumage just for Bald Eagle alone. You might be surprised to see how similar the head pattern on a 3rd year bird looks like the mask on an Osprey.
** photos from top: Bald Eagle, Golden, Bald, Golden