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Welcome to the nesting season on Wildcat Mountain! In collaboration with the Highlands Ranch Community Association Backcountry Wilderness Area, we’re documenting our beloved pair of golden eagles as they work to rebuild their nest and hopefully raise some eaglets. Stay tuned for intimate and exciting glimpses into the challenging and beautiful life of our wild eagle neighbors. This is the 13th consecutive year this golden eagle pair has nested on Wildcat Mountain. Courtship for the eagle pair begins in December and the trails close January 1st to prevent human disturbances from impacting their nesting process and to comply with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Laws. They typically begin incubating by late February or early March which is the marker to close the Douglas County trail directly below the nest. Appropriate trail closures are in place through August if the nest is successful.
Videos stacked below with most recent on top.
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Although the wind was not bad at nest level, the ground level gusts had their way with Peter’s camera and tripod, especially since he was shooting at 1200mm. If you overlook the periodic vibrations, you will discover the wonderful news Peter witnessed on May 4th. The Fourth is with the golden eagles this year! Enjoy!! Published May 4, 2023
The golden eagle pair at Wildcat Mountain now have at least one eaglet. The awesome team at HRCA Backcountry Wilderness Area are overjoyed, as are we. This pair (and we are reasonably certain that it’s the same male and female) have nested on this cliff since 2012. They produced a single eaglet in 2014, and then two eaglets in 2017, 2018 and 2019. They’ve failed to hatch any young since then, and of course we’ve been speculating as to why. No matter; both eagles are clearly still fertile, and we’re all keeping a close watch, with our wings, talons and fingers crossed. Please help them be successful this year by observing all trail closure rules and following the signage…and thank you once again to Mark Giebel and his staff and volunteers at HRCA Backcountry Wilderness Area! Published April 28th, 2023
Love is definitely in the air on Wildcat Mountain. As we continue documenting the courtship and nesting behavior of the golden eagle pair, we first see them relaxing on one of their favorite perches below the eyrie. At 1:35, the female glances skyward to see her mate soaring overhead. Approximately ten seconds later he makes a spectacular banking dive, and what follows might be described as coming home with chocolates, a dozen perfect roses and a diamond anniversary bracelet. Without a doubt, this is a very tightly-bonded pair. We’re impressed…and keeping our talons crossed for this season! Published on February 28, 2023
Videos from the 2022 season are below
On a cool afternoon in early April, the Wildcat Mountain golden eagle pair is settling into their duties. The female is carefully organizing her nest, moving a stick here and there, getting the bowl more comfortable for her, and making sure the dry grass and feathers, which line the very center of the nest, will protect the egg(s). Right around 3:00, she faces the camera and settles down on the egg to incubate, with a few last “stick fixes”. Towards the end of the segment, you’ll see Dad keeping watch in one of his favorite pine trees, with a foot tucked up in a relaxed pose, and his “panel” (belly) feathers fluffed out to keep the supporting foot warm. Stay tuned for more updates, and hopefully some good news around Mother’s Day!
The nest (also known as an “aerie” or “eyrie”) on the west side of Wildcat Mountain has fresh, bright green evergreen branches, and the sides of the “bowl” have been built up considerably in the last few weeks. When Peter visited on March 31st, he observed both parents tending the nest. Although other golden eagle pairs in the area began incubation almost a month ago (as has this pair in previous years), we are thrilled to see the promising start of this year’s breeding season. As the expression goes, “Better late, than never!” By the way, the addition of conifer boughs has a two-fold purpose: not only are they soft and flexible, providing good cushion in the nest, they also discourage the presence of insects. Chemical compounds known as “terpenes” are abundant in conifer resin, and when the tree’s bark is damaged, the resin flows out to harden and protect the tree. The terpenes in this resin act as deterrents to some insects such as bark beetles that might otherwise feed on the tree, and also some types of fungi. In a raptor nest, the terpenes discourage flies and other insects and arthropods which are attracted to the leftover meat.
We were lucky enough to spot Mom golden eagle enjoying a hard-won lunch of cottontail rabbit. It took her about twenty minutes to consume the rabbit, which we’ve shortened to about five and a half minutes here. As you can see, she’s not alone; black-billed magpies are the frequent, uninvited guests at the meals which raptors consume on the ground. These scavengers are exceptionally smart (they’re in the same family as crows and ravens) and they will watch the eagle’s movements carefully, anticipating just the right moment to lunge in and grab a morsel of meat or fur. Some of the magpies even chose to stand a few inches farther away than others, taking a gamble that the eagle or hawk may fling an undesirable piece of meat away, rather than simply dropping it. So long the magpie doesn’t “cross the line”, so to speak, the eagle will usually ignore them. When she’s finished eating, watch her neck, throat and head carefully: she’s moving her head in the opposite direction of her neck, and distending her neck. She’s most likely gotten a bone or larger piece of meat temporarily stuck in her esophagus, and she’s trying to move it down into her “crop”, the sac for the temporary storage of food which rests on the wishbone. Storing a large meal here temporarily helps balance out a bird for flight. In other videos, you may notice a bulge at the upper breast of both Mom and Dad; that’s their last meal! At 3:54, she begins to “feak”, or quickly wipe both sides of her beak against the rock upon which she’s been feeding. Feaking is a crucial last step after a raptor eats which helps them remove sticky bits of meat and helps keep their faces and head clean. Then Mom “mutes” (or defecates), feaks a bit further and eventually takes off to fly north across the cliff face to the northwestern edge. Here’s a hint: if you want to know when an eagle is going to take off and fly, it’s almost always after they use the bathroom. ALL birds instinctively lighten the load before taking to the sky…it saves on weight and energy usage!
Welcome to Wildcat Mountain, home of Highlands Ranch’s breeding pair of golden eagles! This year the Raptor Education Foundation, in close collaboration with the HRCA Backcountry Wilderness Area, is documenting the efforts of the eagles to raise a family. Many of you may not realize that these eagles inhabit the Wildcat Mountain area, the Backcountry and Douglas County Open Space year-round. While they return to the area of the eyries (nests) in late December to begin reestablishing the pair bond, the reason they do not migrate far from the area is due to the plentiful food supply. Cottontail rabbits and prairie dogs make up the bulk of their food supply, both of which can be found in the areas at the top of the cliffs, and in the Backcountry to the south and west. Without this critical habitat for both predator and prey, the eagles could not survive here. There are actually TWO nests on Wildcat; one is towards the northern end of the cliff, where the video begins, and the second nest which has been used in several years prior to 2021, faces west and is further south along the cliff wall. Mom eagle went to the southeast while REF was filming, and returned about 30 minutes later with her lunch, a fresh cottontail rabbit. After consuming it (and ignoring up to seven black-billed magpies who were hoping to grab scraps!), she flew north and back up to top of the cliff, where she was soon joined by Dad. You can see that both eagles have a large bulge below their necks, which are their recent meals. The food they’ve just swallowed is in the “crop” which is the sack for the temporary storage of food that rests on the wishbone. Storing a large meal here temporarily helps balance out a bird for flight. The eagles go through the motions of a quick copulation, which is an important part of strengthening their pair bond. Hanging out together more often, closer together, and closer to the nest are all important steps in the ritual of annual nest building/restoration. The question is: which nest will they use in 2022?
People often ask: do eagles like to fly? The short answer is: we’re pretty sure they do! But flying takes a lot of energy, so if you can soar and not flap, that’s much more energy efficient. Any bird can soar for a few minutes, but red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures, eagles, ravens, albatrosses and many other species of birds have turned it into an art form. The best way to soar is to find a column of rising, warm air called a thermal, and fly into it. The rising air acts like an elevator, lifting the bird higher and higher. Human glider pilots know this phenomenon well, and often look for raptors circling in the sky to lead them to thermals. Another way to make soaring easier is to look for the updrafts and currents created when surface winds encounter land forms, like mountains. The air races upwards, and can provide excellent lift, especially if an eagle is jumping off the edge of the cliff. Many times, raptors will hunt when soaring, but if they’ve just eaten, and if they’re very high up, they won’t actually go after a prey animal such as rabbit. Experienced raptors know exactly how fast they need to be going, and which direction the wind needs to be blowing, to make the calculated risk of food pursuit pay off…hopefully. You may notice a lot of traffic noise in these videos. One of the truly remarkable aspects of this golden eagle pair is how close to human civilization they’ve chosen to make their home. Goldens normally don’t tolerate human disturbance very well, unlike bald eagles who don’t seem to mind, especially here in the Denver Metro area. That being said, it’s still very important to be aware of their needs and stay up to date on the latest trail closures and other controls in place to ensure that they’re successful their year. Thanks for watching!