Observing Raptor migration at a hawk watch site can be an amazing spectacle, with kettles of hawks and eagles soaring overhead, eliciting “oohs” and “aahs” from humans present. In the fall, all we know is that the birds are heading south somewhere, after leaving breeding grounds to the north somewhere. Modern satellite tracking devices are now being utilized by biologists to fill in this information gap and the Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch has benefited from the knowledge gained, specifically in the case of one special Golden Eagle, Athena.
Athena is an adult female that spends her winters in the Bernheim Research Forest of Kentucky. She was trapped and fitted with a solar-powered GPS tracking device in 2019 which allows conservation biologists to follow her travels via cell tower data transmission. Golden Eagles mate for life and Athena’s mate, Harper, also carries a tracking unit. The pair’s presence there has been an educational bonus for visitors, and the names are the result of public voting.
In the spring, Athena and Harper head north to their nesting area near Churchill, Manitoba, however, they do not travel together. Harper migrates west of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, while Athena travels east of the lakes taking her north through both Michigan peninsulas. They reunite at the nest site in Manitoba, hopefully raise a family, then migrate separately again in the fall. Below is the map of migration from 2019, a very similar route.
Athena began her fall 2020 south bound migration on October 9, reaching the north shore of Lake Superior on October 28. She roosted for the night near Lake Superior Provincial Park, about 120 miles north of St. Ignace. On October 29, she crossed the Straits of Mackinac, just west of the Pt. LaBarbe watch site between 2 and 3 pm, and the lone Golden Eagle recorded that hour by counter Calvin Brennan was likely Athena! According to the GPS tracking, Athena crossed the straits at an altitude of 2300 feet and at a speed of 54 mph! She spent that night near the Jordan River Fish Hatchery, then continued her journey south, arriving at Bernheim on November 8, traveling over 1500 miles.
Andrew Berry, Director of Conservation at Bernheim, stresses the importance of preserving blocks of forested land all along the migration path, critical to Golden Eagles for hunting and resting.
MSRW hawk watchers are already anticipating the 2021 spring migration, and are optimistic that Athena will once again soar across the Mackinac Straits. With fresh GPS data it may be possible to follow her progress north to learn when Athena is nearing the straits area, and increase the chances of actually seeing Athena overhead. Dr. Tricia Miller of Conservation Science Global, will be closely monitoring Athena’s travels and sharing up to date information with MSRW observers. For once, watchers may be empowered by knowledge of an individual bird’s comings and goings, making it personal and exclaiming “Hey, I know that bird!” as Athena, a magnificent Golden Eagle powers by.