Project director C. R. Preston with recently captured juvenile golden eagle. (Photo by N. Horton)

Volunteers help document Bighorn Basin’s golden eagles

By Kelsey Dayton
— September 16, 2014

The advertisement in the paper caught Bud Schrickling’s eye. It called for volunteers to watch golden eagles. He knew little about the birds, and he’d never participated in a wildlife study. But his wife, Dale Schrickling, is a wildlife photographer and it sounded like a way for them learn about the birds, help the community and take some great pictures.

Kelsey Dayton

The instructions were simple. Sit, watch and write for four hours at a time, twice a week, logging every 15 minutes what they saw through the spotting scope.

Sometimes they didn’t see anything for hours. Sometimes something happened, like the time an eagle brought a snake back to the nest, and the times they watched a chick frantically flap its wings and catch air for the first time.

“It’s that type of moment that’s why we did it for so many years and keep coming back,” Dale said.

The Stricklings are part of a group of citizens that call themselves “the golden eagle posse,” helping the Draper Natural History Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody gather data on golden eagles in the Bighorn basin.

Golden Eagle Posse members Richard Gruber and Don Chaffey (hat) monitoring a golden eagle nest. (Photo by A. Hay — click to enlarge)
Golden Eagle Posse members Richard Gruber and Don Chaffey (hat) monitoring a golden eagle nest. (Photo by A. Hay — click to enlarge)

Each year about 12 volunteers — students, retired teachers, doctors and homemakers — pair up and watch a nest from when the eggs hatch in May to when the chicks leave the nest in late June or early July. They are not scientists by trade, but their work is helping fill a crucial data gap in the northwest corner of the Bighorn basin on golden eagles.

Charles Preston, senior and founding curator at the Draper, who is also a trained wildlife ecologist and raptor biologist, helped launch the museum’s participation in aiding research projects and engaging the public. He settled on golden eagle research for the first project the Draper tackled because of its ecosystem importance and the lack of data on the birds in the basin.

“Golden eagles are an apex predator and provide a broad window into what’s happening in the ecosystem,” he said. “They are a nice barometer of environmental change.”

The study, which began in 2009, has documented 80 nest sites — most discovered by flight observations. The number of nesting birds greatly fluctuates year-to-year.

Two young golden eagle nestlings. (Photo by C. Campbell — click to enlarge)

No one ever fully inventoried the Bighorn Basin’s golden eagle population, meaning land managers didn’t have a complete understanding of the exact nesting densities and reproductive successes of the area birds, said Destin Harrell, wildlife biologist with the Bureau of Land Management Cody office.

Preston worked with Wyoming Game and Fish, the BLM and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services to create a strategy that could provide the agencies useful data. Harrell confirmed that the information the study provides — particularly the inventory of eagle nests — helps the BLM better plan for permitted activities.

“When we know where the nests are we can buffer from disturbances, like oil and gas wells,” he said. “The more information we have, the better we can balance uses and manage for wildlife and its sustained future on the landscape.”

Scientists have extensively studied the birds across the West, however there are huge geographical gaps in the data, said Brian W. Smith, deputy chief for the migratory bird program in U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services’ Region 6. Understudied areas, like the Bighorn Basin, provide pockets of unknowns in golden eagle research.

Golden eagle adult feeding nestling (eyas). (Photo by A. Hay — click to enlarge)

The service might tag some nestlings in the future to track the birds’ movements, but the legwork of the citizen scientists is already helping biologists better understand the birds in this region.

“It’s a fairly understudied area and a fairly important area as well,” Smith said. “It’s really plugging a hole for us in trying to get a better picture of golden eagles in the West.”

Preston wanted to gather baseline data on the breeding population and to learn what habitat features are important to nesting success.

This year Preston and staff banded about 15 birds. Four fledglings also received satellite transmitters. He’d like to band 10 to 15 each year to help track movement when they leave the basin. Preston is also planning to expand the study to look at winter diets and movements of the birds.

Draper Museum research assistant Nathan Horton points out a golden eagle nest to young participants in the Center of the West’s Eyes on Eagles Discovery Camp. (Photo by C. Preston — click to enlarge)

The Draper has a small staff and couldn’t conduct the research without volunteers who are trained to code observations every 15 minutes.

Anne Hay, a retired elementary teacher volunteering at the Draper lab when the study launched, thought it would be exciting to monitor wildlife as part of a research study. She was right, part of the time.

“It can be very, very, very boring and it can be very, very, very exciting,” she said.

She’s watched a nest for more than an hour unsure if there was even a bird in it. She’s had eight hour stretches watching and glimpsing a bird only once. But she’s returned each year to volunteer. She likes the science part of it, learning about the birds and research process.

That’s what brings volunteer Don Chaffey back, too.

“I knew an eagle when I saw it, but I didn’t appreciate the finer points,” he said.

At the end of each season he has piles of data sheets and a better understanding of the eagles and the ecosystem as a whole. And while it requires hours of sitting — the first thing he learned was how to position his car to block the wind — to see a chick’s first attempt at flying never gets old.

“It’s mother nature in action,” he said. “Where else do you get to see that?”

Pilot/research assistant Richard Jones and two views of a Golden Eagle nest from the air. (Photo by R. Jones — click to enlarge)
A sample of prey remains from one golden eagle nest. (Photo by C. Preston — click to enlarge)

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide and the Casper Star Tribune. Contact Kelsey at kelsey.dayton@gmail.com. Follow her on twitter: @Kelsey_Dayton

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Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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2 Comments

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  1. Nice job writing this, Kelsy!

    It’s great to see people like Dr. Preston getting things done for the benefit of our animal brethren. Kudos to the volunteers – observing nature is something we all should do on a regular basis just to be in touch with the ‘real world.’ To do so and contribute to science at the same time is even better.

    Speaking of volunteers, the amazing Draper Museum in Cody has a wonderful program, The Raptor Experience, which exhibits several species of raptors, and volunteers have been selflessly giving their time there too. I think that Dr. Preston was the spark for that program also. I encourage everyone to check out the Raptor Experience and see these beautiful birds up close.