Eagle Observations from June 6, 2020

“Another glorious morning on the James River” was my first thought once out of the slip. I shifted into forward, throttled the outboard engine and headed into the magic of Jefferson’s Reach. The wind blew from the North and the glow from the morning sun lit the surrounding perfectly. I was right … glorious.

It was just Lynda and I on the Discovery Barge II, ready for, well …. discovery!  The river was quiet initially, with no prothonotary warblers calling out or resident kingfishers who frequently flitter, chatter and hunt in the first bend of the trip. And no sighting of Bandit or Trey.

Next it was onto Henry & Duchess’ territory and our hopes of seeing their two fledglings. We made the sharp turn and instantly saw Mondo perched along the south-side of the river. He flew off, out of sight, into the wetlands that surrounded their nest tree. We scanned both shorelines and just upriver from where Mondo had just left … there she was, Lorna, the other fledgling eagle from this territory. She, unlike her brother, stayed and as we got closer, could see the morning sun lighting her brown feathered head, while a large branch put the rest of her body in the shade. It’s very obvious who is who with these two. Lorna, the female, is much larger than her sibling, Mondo. Lorna looked around, moving her head up, down and side to side, eventually flying across the river, calling out the entire time. “Cheeee, cheeeeee, cheeee,” from shore to shore, landing on a very old and sycamore tree, at the end of Henry & Dutchess’ territory. A few hundred feet away is a massive pine tree, half fallen, hanging over the shoreline at a forty-five degree angle. This pine tree is the beginning of Bandit’s territory and the space between the pine and sycamore is the buffer zone between the two territories. In order to survive, ultimately this no-fly-zone has to be honored or fights between eagles will certainly occur.

Shortly after Lorna landed in the Sycamore, Duchess flew in and landed just a few feet to left of her. Moments later Mondo appeared from the swamp, crossed the river and flew along the shoreline just above the trees. Lorna left her perch, joined him in flight and the two soared together, free and wild. Both called out and and played in mid air as one would fly down at the other causing it to turn upside down and flare their talons. “So young, and already showing signs of advancement” I thought.  Young eagles have to learn quick. In another two months or less they’ll be gone for good, on their own wandering the Chesapeake Bay watershed and beyond for the next four to five years becoming mature bald eagles. If they survive that long, once fully mature, they will be able to find a mate and secure their own territory.

Varina & Enon made their first showing in weeks and it was great to see them, although I wondered where they had been. Mid-May to mid-June is the time the young eagles fledge. Often times, the parents go missing during this time, at least from within sight of the river. It could be they are just over the tree line feeding on a dead deer, or just out of sight for whatever reason. But, I wonder if they are more likely to leave the territory at this point in their annual life cycle as this is the time, the eaglets fledge and perhaps as they gain confidence in their ability to fly, they leave the territory by mistake and the parents must follow to protect and make sure the young eagles can make it back safely. Bald eagles seem to do certain things they only do during a particular time of the year. For example, right now, bald eagles are less likely to take an easy meal. An example would be a fresh, dead fish on the surface of the river. Instead of grabbing it, they watch it and wait for an osprey to snatch it off the surface and then the eagle will chase the osprey to steal the fish. When an eagle has young to teach, it makes sense to wait and chase the osprey because they are showing/teaching the young eagles how to get food by stealing from an osprey. Whether an eagle pair has young or not, right now, they will wait and chase osprey as oppose to grabbing a much easier meal. It must be in their DNA to teach this and they do wo whether they have young or not. Chasing an osprey is such an energy drain and it can last minutes. That’s a lot of wing beats … hard, fast, tiring wing beats.

We did’t see Virginia & James either, and like Varina & Enon, they have been absent most of the spring. They are rarely in their normal perching spots and seem to be off this year. It was about a year ago I suspected the male eagle, James, was a new mate to Virginia. In the past, when a new eagle replaced an existing one, it took some time to figure out, but became so obvious a new eagle was present, there was no question about it. With the case of Virginia & James, even a year later, I can’t say with full confidence that a new male eagle has taken over. Something is amiss … maybe it’s just me.

Downriver a bit further we entered into Dark Beak & Merry’s territory. We saw one of them flying around, back and fourth from one end of the territory to the other. This bird was on patrol and not stopping or landing. One thing is for sure … as the eagle flew past a small patch of trees on the west side of the river, a kingbird flew out, gave chase, flying down at the eagle, landed on its back and rode it for 100 yards. “Ah-ha, the kingbirds are back and nesting. Yes!” I said. So for the next several weeks, when any eagle files near these trees, these kingbirds will give a rodeo style show that’s incredible to see. On another note, I find myself writing the male's name either Darkbeak or Dark Beak ... I'm not sure which I like better, but starting to think Dark Beak is the way I'll write his name as long as he is around.

Not far away we entered into Rebecca & John’s territory. This pair, has a failed breeding season. I remained hopeful, but there just does’t seem to be any activity at the nest. Today we saw John flying out, chasing an immature intruder. He tried to call out at one point, and once he did, I knew it was him. John lost his voice, or ability to make the ‘eagle call’ last year. All he can do is make small cackles. BUT, he did manage to eek a loud squeak at one point, which is more than he’s been able to do for over a year now. I wonder if his voice box is healing and his ability to make the unmistakable eagle call is coming back?  I hope so and quite honestly, knowing how many eagles are out there now, wanting territories, and understanding how much of a weakness not having the ability to audibly communicate is, I thought he would be replaced, injured or killed by now.

Last week, Barb & Treble’s nest was completely empty, meaning their two eaglets had fledged. As soon as we crossed the buffer zone and into their territory we spotted a fledgling on the east side of the river … and then there were two. Both were flying together, and calling out much like Lorna & Mondo. it was awesome as Barb & Treble were watching them fly around. All four eventually left the river and landed in trees too far away to be seen, but not too far to be heard. We could hear both screeching for their parents to bring them food.

Baba & Pops were not to be found today, so the hopes of finding their second eaglet will have to wait for another week. Again, it was reported they had two eaglets in the nest. One has fledged so far with the other more than likely in flight or perched watching the sun go down over Jefferson’s Reach. On the way back, we did find Bandit and she was busy at the downriver end of her territory … protecting it, probably from Henry & Duchess, or that pesky eagle from the south-side of Dutch Gap who makes forays into Bandit’s territory far too often (and has been doing so for most of 2020). Perhaps that is why Bandit more than likely has another failed breeding season. Each week offer little or no hope she has success at the nest and today showed no signs of success.

So the total count for fledgling eagles this year in Jefferson’s Reach is five. Out of the eight pair, four have failed, three have fledglings, and then there is Bandit & Trey, whose hope is getting thinner. Baba & Pops still may have one other fledgling, but for now, there are five. As for Eagle Parents of the Year Award, Henry & Duchess have a slight lead over the other two successful pair.

Parting notes include seeing the first great egret of the year in Jefferson’s Reach. As they start to arrive in bigger numbers, white dots will scatter the shorelines in the early morning light. The osprey chicks are getting bigger. In just a week they went from too small to see over the nest rail, to half their body is over the nest rail. Journey & Traveler, in their second season on the river have three young osprey in their nest. Last year, when they first arrived, they took too long to decide on where to build their nest and ultimately failed in their breeding season. This is their first successful brood so far and already have a three piece. Across the river on another channel marker is Walter & Annie, one of the older pair of osprey on the river. They again have two young osprey on the nest and seem to be a few days younger than Journey & Traveler’s chicks. Both pair were busy at the nest tearing apart a fish and feeding their offspring small piece by small piece. Until next week …

Capt. Mike