I left my house before dawn to look for an eagle. Actually, my first destination would be the site of a pair of Trumpeter Swans that had been reported up in Walker County, Ga., about 40 minutes from where a Golden Eagle has been spotted over several days this past week, not far from the Tennessee and Alabama state lines. Both the eagle and the swans would be what birders call “lifers,” birds I’ve never seen before.
Like most birds that people chase, these are common birds elsewhere in the country—just rare to see in the state of Georgia. At one point, though, Trumpeter Swans got dangerously close to extinction. In 1933, fewer than 70 individuals could be found in the wild, and North America’s heaviest bird looked like it was going to join the Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet and the Great Auk as extinct birds in this country. Fortunately, thousands of Trumpeter Swans were doing just fine undetected in the Alaskan wilderness, and now breeding populations are thriving in various northern states and Canada. Every so often, a few will make it down to Georgia.
After my first ever pitstop at a Buc-ees for their (world famous!) restrooms and a brisket breakfast burrito, I made my way towards Crawfish Springs Lake near the town of Chickamauga—best known as the site of the second bloodiest battle of the Civil War. As I left the interstate, I headed into rural northwest Georgia. This is Marjorie Taylor Green’s district, and signs proclaimed the returns of both Trump and Jesus. But it’s also beautiful country that encompasses part of the Chattahoochee National Forest and the Blue Ridge Mountains. My GPS hadn’t even gotten me to the destination when I saw the huge birds in the small industrial lake behind a chain-link fence to my right. I pulled over and watched the gorgeous (and enormous!) pair of swans feeding among the Canada Geese, Gadwalls and Ring-necked Ducks in the springs. Finding the Golden Eagle would not be this easy.
Just before I arrived at the Stakeout Golden Eagle location posted on eBird, I noticed a large raptor picking at some carrion alongside a pair of crows in field as I drove past. I turned around and quickly realized it was an eagle—just not the one I was looking for. This bird had a golden-brown body, but its head had just gotten most of the white feathers of a mature Bald Eagle, a species that, like the Trumpeter Swan, has made a comeback from the brink of extinction. At one point in the 1950s, there were less than 500 breeding pairs in the Lower 48 States. In 2007, it was finally removed from the list of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife, and it’s become a much more common sight in Georgia this last decade.
Bald Eagle with a pair of American Crows
Golden Eagles, on the other hand, are not. They can be found year-round in much of the western United States, as well as across much of northern and central Europe, the Middle East, northeastern Africa and Central Asia. The large, agile raptor has been adopted as the national symbol of five different countries: Albania, Austria, Germany, Kazakhstan and Mexico. But they’re unusual to see in the Southeast. I’d gotten a text from the “Georgia Rare Bird Alert” group earlier in the week that what a birder had initially assumed was a juvenile Bald Eagle was actually a Golden Eagle. Georgia birders had been making the trek up to the northwest corner of the state all week with varying amounts of luck. Yesterday, a group had realized that there were actually two Golden Eagles in the area—an adult and a juvenile—and the photos of perched, majestic birds was too much to resist.
I’ve become an avid birder the last three years—some who follow me on social media might say obsessed—but I don’t often leave Atlanta just because someone found a bird. I did drive two hours north once to see a stunning flock of Evening Grosbeaks, but I pale in comparison to the most active birders in the state. Those would include the first person I saw when I arrived at the stakeout location. Yve Morrell had driven up from St. Simon’s two days ago, and was on her third day of trying to find the eagles. She’d finally seen one flying over the field just before I arrived, and I immediately regretted visiting the swans first.
Morrell is working on a Georgia Big Year—an attempt to see as many bird species as possible in the state in 2023. The Golden Eagle was her 197th since Jan. 1, and she’s got still got 10 and a half months to top the record of 337 set last year by veteran birder Bob Zaremba. She’d already added Smith’s Longspur—a bird that had only been reported once before in the state—last weekend. Second place for 2023 currently stands at 175 species. Personally, I’d need a few more to crack the Top 100.
But this attempt is nothing compared to what Morrell did in 2017, when she took an entire year off for her ABA-area Big Year—the competition that the 2011 movie The Big Year, starring Jack Black, Owen Wilson and Steve Martin, was based on. Wilson’s character found 732 species. Morrell found 816, the most in 2017 and the sixth most of any year, before or since.
She stuck around to help others locate the eagles, and as a few of us were scanning the tree line, getting stung by the cold winds, another pair of birders drove up, letting us know they’d seen it two miles down the road. Pretty soon, a half dozen cars with county plates from all across the state were gathered and more sets of binoculars were pointed at the sky, double-checking every Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture and Red-Tailed Hawk. Killdeer, Eastern Meadowlarks and American Robins flew across the fields. A pair of Northern Harriers glided by—birds I almost never see anywhere near Atlanta. But no Golden Eagles.
One of the birders asked how to find the snag where one of the eagles was seen earlier in the week. I told her I’d drive back that way and she could follow me. An older gentleman named Bill hopped in my car. As we neared our original location an enormous raptor suddenly appeared, flying away from us, almost directly over the road. “That’s it!” Bill shouted, as I very literally became a “bird chaser.” I was resisted the urge to lift my binoculars to my eyes as I drove, but I could see the huge wingspan of the Golden Eagle through the front windshield. I pulled over and hopped out of the car as the vagrant raptor veered right over the field, around the pond and out over the tree line. “I think that was the adult,” Bill said. Before it disappeared I caught a glimpse of a second bird, similar in size. Maybe the juvenile?
I made a couple more laps up and down the road in hopes of seeing the eagle perched in a tree so I could get a photo. But my brief glimpse of the huge bird flying right above my car would have to be enough—it’s definitely something I’ll never forget.
Josh Jackson is Paste’s co-founder and editor-in-chief. You can follow him on Twitter @joshjackson or his Birds of Atlanta account on Instagram and Twitter.