Eagles are soaring along James River

Published 12:54 pm Friday, July 12, 2019

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

The “dogma” that eagles need a mile between nests has been debunked as more and more rear their young along the James River, said biologist Dr. Bryan Watts. 

The distance is due more to the ability to secure food, said Watts, who heads up the Center for Conservation Biology, which recently announced that a milestone had been reached when it comes to the breeding pairs of eagles on the James River.

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This year, the Center recorded 302 pairs of eagles, making the James the most significant waterway for the iconic raptor, according to the Center. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

“This new milestone is particularly gratifying since the James is the only major tributary of the Chesapeake Bay where the species completely disappeared as a breeder during the 1970s,” Watts said.

During the 2019 breeding season, the population produced 344 young. Strongholds along the river include Charles City County (62 pairs), James City County (50 pairs), Surry County (39 pairs) and Prince George County (36 pairs).

Watts said Surry is attractive to eagles for three main reasons — it is rural, has trees big enough to nest in and offers an abundance of food. 

Meanwhile, there are 10 pairs along the Pagan River alone in Isle of Wight County, said Watts, adding that most of these are located near fresh water inputs. 

The number of nests along the James suggests that food is abundant, he said. 

“We have pairs that are less than 100 yards apart now,” said Watts. 

At the same time, as more pairs take up residence along the James and broader Chesapeake Bay, younger pairs are spilling out across the landscape and into adjoining states, said Watts. 

Watts said that the 300-pair mark represents a symbolic milestone: In 1990, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service Bald Eagle Recovery Team established 300 pairs as the recovery goal for the entire Chesapeake Bay.

 “For the James River alone to have surpassed this goal is a remarkable achievement,” Watts said. “The James now supports one of the densest breeding populations found anywhere throughout the species’ range.”

The pesticide DDT was the agent that wiped out the eagle population in the 1960s, leading to its ban in 1972. 

Three years later there was not a breeding pair to be found along the James River.

In 1980, a lone breeding pair was found and the numbers have steadily increased since, growing from 204 pairs in 2013 to 302 this year, according to the Center.

Today, the two largest threats to the eagle population are the loss of nesting habitat due to urbanization and contaminants ingested through prey.

Lead has become a major contaminant in this region from spent bullets in deer carcasses, said Watts. 

“They can pick up small lead fragments in the gut piles left by hunters or dead deer not found by hunters, said Watts.

“As a community, we should be doing what we can to reduce lead exposure by burying gut piles and shifting to copper ammunition,” he said. 

Eagle nests are often six to eight feet across and can be 10 or more feet deep, and require a large tree to support them. The base of the nest is made of large sticks that eagles break off trees, but the lining of the nest is made of soft grasses and other plant material. A typical breeding pair will raise up to three large chicks. Eagles can live up to 30 years.

Eagles begin to breed in December, and unlike osprey, which migrate elsewhere for the winter, eagles remain in Virginia year-round. 

Ospreys, which are also raptors, were also completely lost on the James in the 1970s, but have made a tremendous comeback in recent years, said Watts.

Ironically, the biggest threats to ospreys are eagles and great horned owls eating their young, said Watts. 

The Center for Conservation Biology bands eagles and tracks them using satellite imagery to assess their mortality rates and other eagle unknowns. 

Watts said the Center got its start many years ago at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland when eagles were getting electrocuted by flying into power lines. The Center tracked 70 birds and then advised the military where it would be helpful to bury power lines rather than leave them above ground. 

The Center does an annual count of nests each year and information about the results can be found on their website at www.ccbbirds.org. 


Bald eagle facts

•Native to North America, the bald eagle was chosen to symbolize the United States because the bird is thought to represent strength, courage and freedom. 

•Bald eagles were removed from the endangered species list in 2007, largely due to the federal ban on DDT and conservation efforts by the American public.  They are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Act.

•Eagles prefer to eat fish, but will also eat small birds, rodents and carrion. They are also known to steal food from other birds.

•Bald eagles are solitary, but monogamous birds. They winter and migrate alone, but remain with the same mate each year. When one of the pair dies, the other will look for a new mate for the next breeding season. 

•Bald eagles grow to about 2.5 to 3 feet in height with a wingspan of 6.5 to eight feet. Female eagles are larger than males. 

Information courtesy of the National Wildlife Federation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  {/mprestriction}