Golden Eagle

Golden eagles in Maine?  It is possible to see one, but always a challenge.  Report any sightings and suspected nest locations to MDIFW, but beware the common mistake of misidentifying a juvenile bald eagle.  Please review the subtle identification tips.

Golden eagle (adult)

Bald eagle (juvenile)

© William Hanson, Next Era Energy

Identification:  A Golden Eagle is generally NOT larger than a Bald Eagle!  Wingspans, weights, and most field characteristics of the two eagle species native to North America are quite similar when viewed from a distance.  Both eagles are larger at more northerly latitudes.  A bald eagle visiting from Florida will seem quite small.  A golden eagle passing through Maine from northernmost Quebec will appear relatively large.

Here are some tips for distinguishing golden eagles and bald eagles, tailored to Maine: 

Golden Eagle distinctions Bald Eagle

Uplands, especially mountains

typical habitat

Shores of lakes, rivers & coast

Wings tips elevated slightly above horizontal plane (= slight dihedral)

soaring flight

Wings held in a straight-line horizontal plane, side-to-side

Smaller head & longer tail relative to body & wing proportions; head & neck length < 50% tail length

silhouette
in flight

Larger head & shorter tail relative to body & wing size; head & neck length ~ 50% of tail length

Appears uniformly dark except amber streaks on head & neck and buffy wing bar on upper wing edge

adult
plumage

White head & tail sharply contrast with dark feathers elsewhere on body & wings

Uniformly dark except amber streaks on nape & buffy wing bar

subadult plumage

Mostly dark feathers with variable white mottling patterns

Same except distinctive broad band of white at base of tail feathers

juvenile plumage

Uniformly dark except for light highlights in underwing axillars

Lower leg has tawny feathers down to ankle; short dark beak with yellow cere at base; flight feathers (especially tail) are faintly barred

seeing an eagle at very close range

Lower leg is bright yellow & unfeathered; large beak changes from black to yellow in first 5 years; flight feathers not barred

Status:  Golden eagles have been designated an Endangered Species in Maine since 1986.  This is the most widely distributed, successful species of eagle in the world.  It lives in all continents of the northern hemisphere.  Nevertheless, the species has always been a rarity in Maine and most of eastern North America.

Cliff nest in Piscataquis County

© Charlie Todd, MDIFW

Juvenile golden eagle, Franklin County

© Walter Spofford

Conservation:  Counts at fall hawk watches in the Atlantic flyway imply recent increases.  The eastern population (PDF) is gaining attention on all fronts:  the breeding range centered in northern Quebec, wintering areas concentrated in the Mid-Atlantic States, and migration corridors between these regions.  Maine hosts golden eagles in all seasons, but is currently on the edge of both the breeding and wintering range in the East.  Most migrants in the East pass west of Maine.  Very few golden eagles are in the state at any time of year.

The last record of golden eagles nesting in Maine was in 1997.  This cliff nest (above) has persisted for at least 70 years.  Residency of golden eagles here dates back at least to 1736.  Native Americans of the Abenaki Nation named another location in northern Maine for the historic presence of golden eagles:  a sketch there in 1689 may be one of the earliest nesting records in North America.

Maine’s extensive forests are greatly limit foraging opportunities in open uplands, a preference of the species.  An unusual diet of wading birds resulted in high contaminants exposure.  Maine’s last nesting pair failed to hatch eggs every year during 1985 – 1997.  A fledgling golden eagle has not been photographed in Maine since this 1960 image.