The bald eagles have landed - right in the cow pastures, where they come to catch an easy meal.
Every winter, eagles come to the Carson Valley for the "birth buffet" provided by cattle on many ranches here.
One of the bald eagles' favorite destinations is the ranch of lifetime resident and rancher Arnold Settelmeyer, who raises mostly Hereford cattle on property across Highway 395 from Johnson Lane. This year, Settelmeyer said, the eagles began arriving early.
"I saw a couple of eagles in December and that's pretty early for them," he said. "Usually when I see them in December, it means there's something going on out there."
That something is part of the cows' natural birthing season - dead calves, afterbirth, placental tissue -all providing an eagle with an easy meal. Eagles can fly 20 to 40 mph and they can dive 100 miles per hour, but at heart, they are scavengers, preferring an easy meal to chasing down a fish or running hare.
- A little background. There are 60 species of eagles worldwide in four categories - fish, booted, harpy and snake eagles.
Two native eagles are the golden eagle, which is a booted eagle (feathers down the leg), and the bald eagle, which is a fish eagleand the only eagle unique to North America.
Here in the Carson Valley, you can generally find goldens on the east side of the Valley and balds on the west side. Goldens are more interested in eating rabbits, snakes and larger land animals including birds, and the balds have a taste for fish - they target crippled waterfowl and steal from raptors including osprey and hawks.
But both are basically scavengers, preferring carrion to tackling live prey. Both eagle species are huge, dwarfed in wingspan only by the turkey vultures that will arrive in March.
Female eagles, which, like other birds of prey, are larger than the males, stand around 3 feet tall, weighing up to 14 pounds, with a wingspan of 8 feet. Males are about 20 percent smaller.
Eagles mate for life, and the lifespan of a wild eagle is around 20 years, although the record for a captive individual is 55.
As part of their mating behavior, bald eagles will fly to great heights with their mate and then grasp claws as they plummet to earth, separating before landing.
- Growing up with eagles. James Settelmeyer, Arnold's son, said he remembers one particular encounter between three bald eagles and three coyotes when he was a boy on the ranch.
"I must have been around 10, and I saw one eagle come and scare away three coyotes," James said. "The coyotes stood back and then two more eagles came down, and it was almost like the coyotes said to themselves, 'Hey, this is nothing, it's just a bird,' so they started to bark and I saw that eagle jump back and spread those huge wings and use one wing to just whack the coyote, sending him flying. He couldn't run away too well, because he was probably dizzy, but the eagle definitely won that one."
James said the cows will usually eat their own afterbirth where removing any trace of birth would prevent predators from following the herd. Arnold said about one third of the cows will tend toward that behavior, but for the rest of the cows, the eagles are the much appreciated clean-up crew.
James said he remembers a study of tagged bald eagles which travel through the Carson Valley. Their travels told the researchers that the eagles' quest is to hit nutritional hotspots across the West.
"When they followed these birds, they went to a salmon run in Oregon, then to a fish run in Alaska, then here for the calving, and then to California for a fish run there," James said.
Arnold Settelmeyer said he doesn't recall seeing Bald Eagles in the Carson Valley before he was 30 and his father Arthur didn't mention seeing them, either.
"When I was younger, I don't remember seeing them - not until I was around 30," he said. "My dad said he'd never seen them, either."
Settelmeyer said the bald eagles really have very little competition for the cows' placentas.
"I've seen them come swooping in and make a pass at the coyotes and they all go running," he said. "Everyone keeps their distance because they are pretty intimidating."
Settelmeyer said the calving season, which is only just beginning, often brings curious onlookers trying to get closer to the birds.
"This time of the year I can wake up to the screech of the bald eagle right outside my house, and sometimes people drive up my road to look for them, which can be a problem," he said. "One time, we had a guy come over the fence and get right in the middle of the cows, and that really bothered me because the cows can be very aggressive and I don't like to have the calves get separated from their mothers."
Settelmeyer said five bald eagles circled over his property Tuesday, catching a thermal after presumably feeding on the ground.
- Fully protected species. Steve Albert, Nevada Division of Wildlife game warden, said eagles are protected under state and federal laws, with criminal and civil penalties, including jail time, reaching as high as $20,000 in fines, for the killing of any eagle.