Eagle Observations: July 14 - August 14, 2020

Eagle Observations (from July 14 through August 18, 2020)
The Chesapeake Bay’s resident bald eagle population crashed so deeply that by the mid 1970’s bald eagles were locally extinct, or extirpated on the James River and on the verge of total collapse in Virginia and throughout the Chesapeake Bay states. Today, the James River is considered the “greatest comeback of the bald eagle in the entire continent”, and here is why.
Reproduction is the means of survival for all species. In the 1940’s a pesticide called DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltricholorethane) was being widely used. DDT worked its way from the land to the water, and into the fish/food source resident eagles would eat and ultimately into the resident bald eagle population. Essentially, DDT blocked the eagle’s ability to produce calcium and when laying eggs, they were too thin and brittle and would break upon incubation, hence, no reproduction. In roughly the life span of a bald eagle, about 25 to 30 years, the collapse of the resident bald eagle population had become an environmental disaster.
In 1975, resident eagles had completely disappeared from the James River … we had no/none/zero resident eagles on the entire 10,000 square miles of the James River watershed. 
Thankfully people began to understand how much of a threat DDT was to wildlife. In 1972 DDT was banned and the “Clean Water Act” was being passed. These two milestones, in combination, set the stage for a comeback no one had imagined possible for the bald eagle. Most importantly was the banning of DDT, but the Clean Water Act was the synergy needed.  Additionally, in the 1970’s, blue catfish and gizzard shad were stocked in the James River, and became a year around food source for resident eagles.
Seven years after the banning of DDT, and four years after the extirpation of bald eagles on the James, something wonderful happened. In 1979, a pair of eagles built a nest and created a territory on Upper Chippokes Creek in the lower tidal James River. In early 1980, their first breeding season, they had success, and thus began the return of the resident bald eagle on the James River. 
Resident bald eagles on the James River have been counted annually (from a plane) since 1962, and today, the Center for Conservation Biology continues these efforts. For a great article on this, click here.
Slowly but surely, resident bald eagles reoccupied territories in the tidal James, building nests and having successful breeding seasons. The eggs were viable and young eagles thrived. repopulating the James and the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Bald eagles mature at the age of four to five years and can then find a mate and a territory. These offspring repopulated the Bay’s watershed, including the James. Today in 2020, the James River’s watershed has 319 pair of resident bald eagles and those numbers slowly climb each year/season. 
Going from “Zero” to 319 pair (638 eagles) of resident bald eagles is what has earned the James River the title of “The Greatest Comeback of the Bald Eagle in the Entire Continent.” This is a real life environmental success story and shows what can be accomplished when nature is considered, as well as an indicator of the River’s improved health.
Locally, in Jefferson’s Reach, the eight pair of eagles fledged seven eagles, which is just below the average of 1.3 fledglings per nest for bald eagles on the James. Four of the pair failed and four had successful breeding seasons, so for the four successful pair, it was nearly two per nest.
To recap, the first eaglet to fledge, Lorna, was on May 10, during the first breeding season for new comers Henry & Duchess, who had two fledglings. Mondo, in the photograph to the right was their second eaglet to fledge. Henry & Duchess’ two fledglings left the area early. This new pair did not waste any time teaching their offspring the basic survival skills a young eagle needs, such as learning how to hold a fish on a branch, how to steal fish from other eagles and osprey, and ultimately, how to swoop down onto the rivers surface to grab a dead catfish or shad. And those are just the skills that we can see them teach.
Baba & Pops had two fledglings on the nest, but only one ever showed itself in the air, so their total count for fledglings is at one. I kept a look out for the second eaglet, but never spotted it.
Barb & Treble's two offspring are now gone, but stayed far longer than the others. The last offspring to leave Jefferson’s Reach left last Wednesday, August 12. She was last observed then, and has not been seen since. It was nice to see Barb & Treble’s offspring stay a lot longer than the others, as it seems over the last few years, the young eagles leave much earlier than what I had previously thought. Some fledglings would stay deep into August and have seen them stay into September. Recently, they all seem to be gone before August 1. One observation that is pretty interesting, is that the new pair of eagles seems to fledge their offspring earlier than the older, original five pair of eagles in Jefferson’s Reach. This is something of interest for me in the future and only time will tell if this observation is true.
The last to fledge were Bandit & Trey’s two eaglets who were both spotted (and photographed) on June 21. Seen here to the left, this photo was taken by Ted Jurkuta on June 21. Her offspring could have fledged up to five days before, which amazingly is over a month after Henry & Duchess fledged their first offspring on May 10. Both of Bandit’s fledglings have left the terriroty and have not been observed for a few weeks now. She currently stands at three successful breeding seasons out of eleven, by far the worst percentage of the original five pair within Jefferson’s Reach.
In my opinion, the coveted “Eagle Parents of the Year” has to go to Henry & Duchess. The way they came onto the scene in early 2019 and built a nest, and carved out a small territory was amazing. Then, to successfully incubate, hatch, feed, fledge and teach the way they did … Wow! Amazing for a first try. They fledged their offspring earlier than any I’ve seen in my eleven years of eagle watching and taught their offspring all the ways of survival, and fast. They did so well, that one might think they are an older pair, and have had many breeding seasons under their belts. Perhaps they were pushed out of a territory by a younger pair in late 2018 and were forced to go find a new territory. Perhaps they had a territory two miles downriver, or 50 miles away. Or perhaps, they are both six or seven years old, and this truly is their first breeding season. Either way, they did an amazing job, and were true testaments of how a resident pair of eagles should thrive during one annual life cycle. Congratulations to Henry & Duchess for being Discover the James’ 2020 Eagle Parents of the Year. 
Stay safe and enjoy the view from your windows, your yard, fresh air … embrace the outdoors.
Capt. Mike