A Gift from Jefferson's Reach on September 11, 2011

September 11, 2011. For all of America, this is a solemn day indeed. I spoke with many friends who, in their own ways, paid respect to the fallen hero’s from the horrible events of a decade ago. For me, I spent time thinking about 9/11 with an American Icon, the bald eagle. The day would prove to be quite special.
It was a reflective day for those of us on the Discovery Barge II, but became a very special one, because of a certain pair of eagles. For a few years now, I’ve been observing and learning about the resident pair of bald eagles called Varina & Enon. 

I can now tell which one is Varina (female) and Enon (male). I finally found their nest this spring, which is now concealed by foliage. I have seen them communicate visually with one another (more on this in another blog post). One habit they have, which I have always wondered about is “Why this pair of eagles is sighted on the river more than any other of the Jefferson’s Reach eagles?”
Varina & Enon are generally perched in the treetops along the riverbanks east of the 295, Varina-Enon bridge. They are the most reliable pair of eagles in the area in regard to being sighted and are almost always visible from the river. I was curious as to why they were so often sighted so I looked at maps and Google Earth. I noticed something interesting … all the other pairs of eagles have an inland body of water to hunt within their territory as well as the James River. Whether it’s a pond, or a large area of land that was quarried for sand and gravel and is now filled with water. Or both, they all had 'other' bodies of water within their territories. Varina & Enon do not have any other body of water remotely close to what their territory may be. Not even a small pond, which means the James River is not just their primary “water based” hunting ground, it’s their only hunting ground. That would explain why they are seen on almost every bald eagle tour.
So why was September 11, 2011 so special? It goes back to late winter of 2010. In February and March of 2010, it was obvious Varina & Enon didn’t have any eggs on the nest, as both birds were along the river the entire time one of them should have been on the nest incubating eggs. This year, in February and March of 2011, only one bird was visible, meaning there was one on the nest, incubating. When Enon would catch a fish, he would fly back to the nest, bringing food for his eaglet(s). These habits indicated they were in the process of raising young.

By mid-June the eaglets of Jefferson’s Reach fledge, or fly for the first time. I saw the eaglets of three other pair flying around by mid-June. While viewing Varina & Enon in mid-June of this year, I saw an immature bird fly out from the tree line, over the river, and quickly headed back over the tree line, out of sight. That was the only sighting of their eaglet for almost three months. 

Over the summer, Varina & Enon, perched in their normal spots but would face away from the river, looking to the southwest instead of looking towards the river, hunting for food. I had always assumed they faced southwest to watch their eaglet, trying to get it to come out to the river. Months passed and they continued to look southwest from the treetops. About the first week of September, they had turned and started to face the river on a regular basis, and it was at that point I assumed something must have happened to their eaglet, that it had not made it. After all, it made no appearances along the river, while the other eaglets of Jefferson’s Reach were out on a regular basis, learning to catch fish.
On September 11, 2011 something unexpected and wonderful happened. Varina & Enon were gliding, circling a dead shad on the river’s surface. They’d dive down towards it, swooping within inches, but never grabbing it. They kept swooping down again and again. Granted, these two birds are called the “dancers” of Jefferson’s Reach, because they seem to love to fly around together close to the water, but in this case they were deliberately not grabbing the shad. While hypothesizing about why they were acting that way, all of the sudden, a third bird flew out over the tree line. A young bird, a Jefferson’s Reach eaglet of 2011 started to fly with Varina & Enon. The parents each dove once more towards the shad when the eaglet began to glide in circles, looking down at the shad, tucked it’s wings a bit, dropped with talons exposed and slid right in for a perfect “snatch” of the dead gizzard shad. Without too much effort, the eaglet flew across the river, north, towards Varina Plantation, with the shad pierced in its talons, landing in a tree to eat its meal. Varina & Enon’s little eaglet was alive and well.
Wow, what a memorable moment that was. To go from thinking Varina & Enon had somehow lost their chick to seeing it out of nowhere and having wonderful photographers on board to capture the moment on film (or should I say 'media card'). Once realizing a new bird was found in Jefferson’s Reach, the guests onboard had the opportunity to name the bird. It didn’t take long before they decided to call the eaglet “Liberty” in memory of the day. I don’t think anything any better could have happened on the river that day. Thank you Varina, Enon & Liberty! I can’t wait to see you this weekend. 

-- Capt. Mike 


The Photo's Stories?  Top Left & Top Right:  Just about the moment we were realizing the bird we were viewing was Varina & Enon's eaglet, John Lewis started to photograph her.  Here are two wonderful images of Liberty.  Enjoy.  -- Photos by John Lewis.  To see more of John's work, click here.

Bottom Left:  A three quarter moon in the background glows in the early evening sun as Varina, the proud parent of Liberty, perches high on the branch of dead tree.  Notice how she is facing southwest, but she turned for the photo.  Good girl.  -- Photo by Lynda Richardson.  To see more of Lynda's work, click here.