Eagle Update, April 13, 2020

Bald Eagle Update, April 13, 2020.

With the current state of Covid-19 interrupting the world, and Discover the James' Bald Eagle Tours coming to a screeching halt, the present seems like a good time to write. No more excuses. It's been far too long since I had (made) the time to write about the resident eagles of Jefferson's Reach, a stretch of river on the James that holds eight pair of eagles. To be specific, Jefferson's Reach starts at a large sycamore tree on Hatcher Island and ends at a large sycamore tree on the east side of Jones Neck. They are both the tallest trees in their respective areas and each marks the edge of an eagle's territory.

I motored my pontoon boat, the Discovery Barge II, slowly through Jefferson’s Reach, seeking out each pair and watching their flight patterns, activity and actions hoping to determine the success or failure of each pair's breeding season.  For some, it was easy to see their success, or failure, while others were a little harder to determine. Given the incredible comeback of the bald eagle on the James River and how much harder it is to have successful breeding seasons year after year, I’d say the eagles of Jefferson’s Reach are right on par. The abundance of mature bald eagles looking for territories is making it increasingly difficult for the current resident eagles as these ‘intruders’ or ‘interlopers’ are causing problems by either crushing eggs, killing chicks, or keeping the adults away from the nest too long for other forces to that cause failure such as storms and cold temperatures. In the photo above and to the right, Barb & Treble's two offspring perch on the nest. They are hard to see, so look close.

The resident eagle's eggs hatch in March which coincides with the return of the anadromous fish that migrate into the James. Anadromous fish live in saltwater and migrate up into freshwater rivers to spawn. Hickory shad, American shad, herring and alewife fill the river system by the millions and the food supply for many birds is multiplied. While eagles are scavengers and will eat just about anything, their primary diet is fish. Another welcoming change (for osprey lover’s as well as the eagles) at this time is the return of the migratory osprey who begin to arrive in early March. By now, mid-April, all the osprey are back at their nesting sites, some with full nests built high and strong on channel markers and trees along the river bank.  Many, but not all osprey, are already incubating eggs. April is a time when the osprey and bald eagles are at full odds.  The eagles are keenly watching the osprey hunting and will leave their perch as soon as an osprey is successful in their hunt. An eagle will chase down an osprey with a fish and one of three things will happen.  The eagle will take the fish, the osprey will get away with the fish, or the osprey will drop the fish and neither will feed on it. Additionally, the osprey are hyper territorial since they have just laid their eggs, meaning the interactions between these two raptors is at the highest right now and will probably remain this way for weeks to come.  

Out of the eight pair of eagles in Jefferson’s Reach, two pair have failed.  Nesting success or failure is noted by the overall activity of each pair in their territory and whether or not they are returning to the nest over long periods of observation.  Dark Beak, a resident male, seemed poised to finally have a successful breeding season in 2020 after three years of fighting to keep his small territory viable. Last spring he lost his mate, butd last fall, Dark Beak accepted a new mate after an amazing two-week courtship. A female came into his territory and ultimately won the trust (and heart) of Dark Beak as the two spent time in separate trees, each day becoming closer until  they were both perched side by side, wings touching, on a large sycamore branch.  Soon after their courtship they built a nest, and on December 24, his new mate was named Merry in the spirit of the season.  Today, Dark Beak & Merry are inseparable as seen in the photo above.

During Dark Beak's three years on the river, he never built a nest until after accepting Merry last fall. They started construction of a nest at the end of November, 2019, but gave up on that initial location and began construction of another nest on a nearby tree. Neither location seemed like the best choice as both were on the outer branches of a large tree. Not ideal, but some eagles choose to build on the outer branches as opposed to constructing closer to the trunk and the connecting larger, more stable branches.

As I motored my pontoon boat around the bend, and into their territory, I peered towards the thin neck of land between the river and swamp, hoping to see a white head sticking out from the nest. I kept looking but the nest was gone. It had fallen completely out of the tree. In mid March, Dark Beak & Merry had not yet laid eggs and I was beginning to wonder if they would at all this year.  Perhaps they did, but it would have been on the later side of laying. Either way, they will not be raising eaglets this year ….  hopefully 2021 will be their inaugural success. As of April 12, 2020, they had not started construction of another nest, or at least not within the visible range of the river.

The other pair showing signs of a failed breeding season is Varina & Enon, another incredible pair of resident eagles. The female, Varina, has been solid like a rock over the course of the eleven years I've been observig her.  Enon is her second mate over that time. Both have been perching far from their nest, with no return trips to the nest, indicating a failed breeding season. On my last three visits to see them, over the last month, they did not have activity at the nest and for the second year in a row, it seems they did not even lay eggs.  2019 & 2020 marks the first time this pair had two successive failed seasons. Three years ago, in 2018, Varina & Enon were the only pair in Jefferson’s Reach to have a successful breeding season and they fledged two eagles from the nest.   Every other pair of resident eagles in Jefferson’s Reach failed, creating the worst breeding season of the eleven I’ve observed. 2018’s poor reproduction was more than likely due to three winter storms that tore through the area at the time the eagle’s eggs were hatching, a most critical and venerable time for the hatchlings. Varina & Enon’s nest is big and old and is still nestled in a pine tree about a half-mile from the river. 

Four pair of eagles showing definite signs of success are Bandit & Trey, Henry & Duchess, Barb & Treble and Baba & PopsThey are all making forays back to their nests at regular intervals, and most of the time, only one eagle is present on the river (meaning the other is probably on the nest).  Occasionally both eagles are perched on the river hunting for food, while keeping a sharp eye out for intruders as well as an eye on their nests. I was surprised at the size of the eaglets on the nest. They were bigger than I would have thought, but then again, they grow so fast. In the photo, you can see the size of the Barb & Treble’s eaglets as they rise high on the nest. The only other nest where I could observe eaglets on the nest were the newest pair of eagles, Henry & Duchess. I believe they have two offspring on the nest as well. In the photo to the left, Henry was flying back to the nest with a small shad but decided to eat it in flight!

I could go on and on writing about each pair of these eagles, but I think it’s safe to say that the most popular bird on the river is Bandit, and I’ve had a couple requests for an update on her.  Talk about a tough eagle … Bandit has been through so many life trials and tribulations that her story could fill a book (hmmm .. interesting idea). I am very happy to report that Bandit is busy at her nest with her mate Trey. The two have consistently been on the nest, and the hopes of Bandit having a third successful breeding season (out of eleven) is something so many have been waiting for. It’s been three long years since her last successful breeding season (her second) and during that time she became better at being an “eagle parent”. Her first successful breeding season, in 2015, wasn’t because of her performance, it was all Trey. He literally did all the work … from incubating to feeding. Bandit, surprisingly did not sit on the nest, did not feed the chick and did not teach it anything after fledging. In fact, there is not one photograph or observation of her with her offspring.  Two years later, in 2017, Bandit & Trey raised two eaglets. Bandit incubated and fed her offspring everyday. Once the eaglets left the nest, Bandit did not participate in ‘educational’ activity with the fledglings outside of the nest. Each successful year she had developed as a parent, and hopefully this year, during her third successful breeding season, she will be able to advance her parenting skills to another level and teach her young how to eat while perched on a branch, or how to steal a fish from an osprey. And most importantly how to pluck a fish from the river.  
To round out the eight pair in Jefferson’s Reach, Virginia & James and Rebecca & John did not show signs of failure, or show signs of definite success either. From my last couple of observations, both seem to have activity at the nest, but neither pair is making it a priority to get back to the nest. Not that this behavior means anything at all, but personally, I like to see straight line flights to and from the nest.  If I were to guess, I’d say both are still raising young and for now, that would make a 75% success rate within Jefferson’s Reach.
I love this area and will continue sharing it with people as long as I can remain on the river. Jefferson’s Reach is about everything that has ever happened in that six miles of river, but it’s also about love and respect for each other and every living thing.  Jefferson’s Reach has changed quite a bit over the years. Eleven years ago there were five pair of eagles and now there are eight. The number of osprey who nest here continues to grow. Small rookeries of great blue heron continuously pop up, songbirds sing, and the deer, turkey and other denizens are always present, just sometimes unseen. To learn why this stretch is named, “Jefferson’s Reach", check out this story from October 2011 …  click here.
Thanks for checking in, and special thanks to Lynda Richardson, my wife, for her wonderful images from yesterday's outing. We'll head back out on the river next Sunday and have a breeding update (with photos) by Monday evening. So for now, take care and stay healthy and safe.
Capt. Mike