Babbitt Ranches golden eagle nesting area under study

Researchers are studying the habits of the golden eagle on the Babbitt Ranches.

Researchers are studying the habits of the golden eagle on the Babbitt Ranches.

Efforts are underway to increase the number of golden eagles on Babbitt Ranches in northern Arizona in a conservation effort to boost their population in the Southwest.

Researchers are concerned a drier, warmer climate may be changing the prey base — decreasing the number of small mammals that the eagles eat — and at the same time increasing populations of harmful insects that can be deadly to eaglets.

Babbitt Ranches has enlisted the support of avian ecologist Tom Koronkiewicz with SWCA Environmental Consultants and a team of researchers. To make sure the large raptors are well fed, which could improve their chances to successfully reproduce, the researchers are leaving roadkill — deer and elk carcasses — near nesting sites this winter.

They are also tracking the eagles to learn more about their breeding behavior. An adult female, Charlie, has them baffled. Koronkiewicz put a telemetry device on her a year ago after she exhibited signs of nesting, he said. But then she took off for Canada.

“From December to February is the usual time when golden eagles lay their eggs. But Charlie did something a little bit different. She bailed,” he said. “She left her nesting area and beelined straight north to the Yukon. And that was not expected by any means. She got there around April and departed the Yukon in October. What is very unique about this is that we assumed she was going to breed last year, but instead, she departed.”

Charlie made the journey north of Flagstaff to the Yukon in a matter of weeks, sometimes flying thousands of feet above the ground.

Using cell phone technology, ecologists were able to download her location every 15 minutes when she was within cell phone coverage and learn where she was stopping along the way. Right now, Charlie is back on her nest on the CO Bar Ranch south of the Grand Canyon, and Babbitt Ranches is interested in the outcome for this year’s breeding season.

“Other eagles in the study area stay in northern Arizona year round,” Koronkiewicz said. “They are residents. They hold those nesting territories. They protect them, to the death sometimes. Those nesting areas are very, very important.”

Koronkiewicz is wondering how many golden eagles, like Charlie, demonstrate breeding behavior here, but may breed somewhere else. Currently, Koronkiewicz is studying nine known nesting sites on Babbitt Ranches, which is considered some of the best golden eagle habitat in the southwest because of the undisturbed, large areas of contiguous natural landscape.

While the eagles are away, researchers repel down steep cliff faces into the nests, located high above the grasslands and, using ropes, the climbers strap themselves in and hang for about an hour to collect samples of duff, sticks and prey remains that can be taken to a laboratory for examination.

As ecologists continue to learn more about golden eagle births, deaths and disease, Babbitt Ranches is hopeful the research will lead to discoveries that will help the golden eagle population thrive and advance conservation efforts.

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