Love is in the air: Golden eagles at Bernheim are officially a breeding pair

By Bernheim

Source: Courier-Journal
Billy Kobin
February 14, 2020


Just in time for Valentine’s Day, researchers at Bernheim Forest have confirmed that golden eagles Harper and Athena are a breeding pair and are likely new parents.

The discovery makes the two golden eagles the first pair to be tracked in the eastern United States, according to a Friday news release from Bernheim.

Staff at Bernheim, located roughly 20 miles south of Louisville in Clermont, have tracked Harper for the past five years, with the male golden eagle calling the arboretum and research forest home in the winter months.

In 2019, a female eagle, Athena, was identified as a companion of Harper, and staff also started to track her, according to the release.

Researchers outfitted Harper and Athena with solar-powered GPS tracking devices to learn more about their habits and migratory patterns, and the tracking revealed their separate migration routes.

But the truly exciting discovery was that Harper and Athena are a breeding pair.

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The full year of GPS data showed that Harper and Athena each took different routes from Bernheim to northern Manitoba in Canada in the spring of 2019, according to the news release.

Harper traveled west of Lake Superior through Duluth, Minnesota, and Athena flew east of Lake Superior through Michigan.

The lovers reunited at their destination in the Hudson Bay lowlands, according to Bernheim.

The eagles are believed to use several factors to help navigate, including the earth’s magnetic field, genetic cues, sunlight, landforms and “other cognitive powers,” Bernheim said in its release.

The new migration and nesting pair behavior information that researchers have gathered thanks to their tracking of Athena and Harper “is both scientifically and culturally fascinating,” the news release stated.

Data from late spring through the summer of 2019 confirmed that the duo are more than just winter companions. They reunited within two hours of arriving at their previous nest site in northern Manitoba, according to researchers.

On April 25, 2019, data showed the first egg had been laid when Harper stayed at the nest while Athena took a short flight. While eagles are nesting, both partners take turns keeping the egg warm.

In early June, data indicated that the egg had hatched, the news release said, as Athena remained on the nest for six days while Harper continued to hunt and return with food.

For the next few months, Athena continued to spend most of her time at the nest while Harper remained dedicated to hunting. By August, Athena ventured out of the nest to travel, hunt and bring food back to the nest, researchers found.

The trip back to Kentucky to reunite involved an “astonishing 1,700 miles” of travel, according to officials.

The new parents Athena and Harper will spend the remainder of winter in the interior forests of Bernheim.

Learn more about the eagles

The research forest and arboretum will hold a series of events in February to educate the public on the eagles that reside in its large forest block, which is the largest privately held block in the eastern U.S.

In honor of Harper and Athena, Bernheim’s Eagle Week starts Monday and runs through Feb. 21.

It will feature numerous eagle-related events, including a brown-bag lunch discussion titled “The Golden Eagle Lecture” from 12 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. Feb. 21 at the Visitor Center. No registration is necessary, with seating available on a first come, first served basis.

This presentation will include a discussion of Bernheim’s past five years of golden eagle research including the complete year of tracking Harper and Athena: touching on information learned from their migrations, their winter range and activity last summer in Canada.

Topics will also include information on human’s history with golden eagles and details on Bernheim’s bird research, including the newly installed Motus bird tracking system, which tracks songbirds on their annual migrations.

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