Golden Eagle “Dscovery”: How Dsco Got the Chance to Support Super Cool Raptor Science

Somehow here at Dsco, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities keep happening.

Last Friday, a group of Dsconians piled into our CEO, Jer’s truck at 6 AM and headed south on i15 towards Price, Utah to meet up with our task force for the day.

If you aren’t familiar with Utah, the road south quickly turns into good old-western desert

That task force consisted of members of the US Forest Service who manage the Manti La Sal National Forest, Biologists from Hawkwatch International who have spent their lives studying raptors, rock climbers who also happen to be biologists (and after last week I now realize that those two things go hand in hand), and of course some members of the Dsco crew…because supply chain technologists and biologists are complementary professions.

We were going to visit some eagles.

The 200 mile stretch of Utah and Colorado known as a the Book Cliffs is believed to be the densest Golden Eagle nesting area in the world, home to at least 1300 nests.

Our objective for the day: band and set GPS devices on baby Golden Eagles (eaglets) for the purpose of tracking their migratory patterns and territorial behavior for the rest of their lives.

Why? Hawkwatch International studies threats to raptors (eagles, hawks, falcons, owls, vultures) across the world. They spend a great amount of time out here in Utah because Utah is considered a migratory highway for many of these birds. Their studies are looking for data about habitat loss, poisoning, collisions and other threats to the raptor population. Tracking individual birds provides them with cool and unique data to support their work.

Desert Essentials kit: Water, sunscreen, Apricots, Oreos

The Forest Service had been watching the nests for the past several weeks. The management team keeps track of the Golden Eagle population and behavior as an early warning signal for the parks. If the eagles are starting to fail, you can bet the rest of the ecosystem is in trouble.

Jeff, who I’ll forever think of as the Forest Boss, had signaled to Hawkwatch that two nests were potentially inside the window of opportunity for tagging. The eaglets were closing in on 9 weeks, which meant that their bodies were fully grown, but they were not yet starting to fly. When you want a bird to comfortably wear a GPS tracker for the rest of its life, there’s no better window than that.

The trail down into the ravine towards the first nest had been carved by mining operations years ago and gave us a smooth, though somewhat steep descent towards the creek and waterfall.

Prime real estate

The eagles nested about 30 feet down the side of a sandstone cliff overlooking that waterfall. The perch gave them a beautiful and tactically excellent view of the desert. We saw plenty of evidence of foolish rabbits that had once lived in the area . . . but no more.

Now for the tricky part. Sandstone is not exactly the most secure climbing material for anyone, good thing for our crew that 1) we had some legit professional rock climbers among the team and 2) this operation required only some old fashioned repelling to see it through. 3 of the biologist team circled the cliff and came up the other side, anchored their ropes and sent Eric down first.

At the base of the cliff, we spread the team for a couple of reasons. The first is that sandstone cracks, breaks, and falls very easily. As a general rule, you should avoid receiving a falling rock with your face…or any part of your body. The second reason is that if the eaglet spooks and decides to jump from the nest, we needed to have spotters around the ravine to make sure we knew where it landed (and yes they glide, stop picturing the National Geographic footage of baby birds nose diving from a cliff).

The eaglet became aware of Eric as he came down the cliff. It started to shuffle to the edge. At this point we all crossed our fingers since the previous day these biologists had spent an extra 7 hours chasing an eaglet that jumped.

He didn’t jump.

Eric’s bird whisperer skills pulled through for us and he was able to reach the eaglet. Securing an eagle consists of using a falconry hood (which makes the eagle look like a giant everything-eating fly) to calm the bird. The darkness under the hood has a soothing effect for them and they relax easily. Good thing too because the talons on these babies are the size of grizzly bear claws and as sharp as they will ever be.

large talons
Put your face in here . . . I dare you. 

The biologists call it getting “footed” when a raptor’s foot gets you. I personally feel like that term doesn’t do justice to what we’re dealing with here. These awesome creatures are called raptors for a reason. “Raptor” comes from the latin word “rapere” which means to take by force. The primary weaponry of these eagles is those talons. A grown human maxes out their grip strength at about 60 psi. These golden eagles easily approach 400 psi.

So in short, don’t let him “foot” you, because if you do: 1) you won’t be able to pry him off, 2) at 400 psi, he may well break your wrist, 3) those razor sharp claws do what claws do, and 4) birds of any kind carry with them an armada of bacteria that you don’t need in your bloodstream.

All terror tactics aside . . . these birds are just glorious.

Angela, Dsco’s VP of Finance & Strategy…aka: Money Science
Andy…the voice of this blog post
Josh, Creative Director for Dsco
Jer, Dsco Founder and CEO . . . and future falconer

What a rush! Holding an eagle is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. For being only 6 pounds, the leg and wing muscles on these birds are extraordinary, and you feel like at any moment he could bate (attempt to fly).

Back to the whole purpose of our adventure.

The biologists from Hawkwatch strapped the eaglets with GPS transmitters that are equipped with solar panels. These units aren’t cheap, nor are the data fees that go along with them (I bet if Dsco powered them we’d be able to do it much cheaper…just saying).

In the coming months and years, they’ll be watching movement patterns for these eagles wherever they go, trying to understand, for example, why the same eagle stays within a 4 mile radius for 10 years of his life, then suddenly decides to journey up to Alberta, CA for some R&R.

Since these GPS units will become a lifelong backpack for these birds, they use a lightweight but very durable teflon cord to strap them on, using the oh-so-scientific block of wood to make sure the spacing on the eagle’s back is comfortable.

And then…they let him flap…a lot!

The silent wind rider of death

The second nest experience was just as excellent as the first, with both eaglets being great participants for the cause of science, and we were able to quickly return them to their nests without a skirmish with Mom and Dad.

In a Hitchcock film, this is the part where momma eagle would grab Neil by the helmet

We at Dsco love sponsoring the work that Hawkwatch is doing, and this was just another amazing opportunity to be reminded that these raptors are extraordinary animals that are a key part of our ecosystems here in Utah and elsewhere.

P.S. If you want to jump in on donating to Hawkwatch, you can learn more here.

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