Eagle Update, April 20, 2020

Bald Eagle Update:  April 20, 2020

Driving through Varina on the way to my pontoon boat, the Discovery Barge II, I peeked down at my console and noticed the 33 degree air temperature outside. “Wow” I thought. "Sure didn’t feel that cold walking to the truck thirty minutes ago." As we passed the James River at Kingsland Reach Marina, Lynda, my wife, and I got a good view of the river and a fog bank as thick as catfish chowder sat just upriver of Kingsland Reach, like a huge wall. My mind skipped over the dangerous combination of boats and fog, and wondered to the awesome photography possiblities …. the sunrise, purple martins, great blue heron, the beautiful James River’s banks and that wall of tiny water droplets. The elements were there.
Eight minutes later, when we arrived at my boat, amazingly the fog wasn’t bad. Two miles upriver, it was a different story. Given the beautiful morning light starting to form, the absence of the fog was certainly for the best … after-all, fog (generally) isn’t a welcome element to the boating community. 
Heading out once a week, trying to capture what it happening with the eagles, osprey, heron and other critters is wonderfully challenging. Watching the eagles just once can offer a lot of information if you know what to watch for and how to read their body language. Last week I spoke of the interactions between bald eagles and osprey. Today it was the battles from the prominent number of immature bald eagles in the area.  The resident eagles seemed to be particularly on guard today and for good reason. We saw a dozen or more immature eagles wandering into resident territories, and at times harassing the residents very close to the nest. “Interlopers" are bald eagles that don’t belong in the area, they are not residents. They can be migratory eagles from the north or south, or eagles that were born within the Chesapeake Bay system. In April, we are in between the two bald eagle migrations (winter eagles from the northeast are gone now and summer eagles from the southeast are not here yet) so the immature birds we saw today were more than likely a part of the Chesapeake Bay population of eagles, or eagles that were born within the Ches Bay watershed. They live their lives within the Bay system and do not become migratory. 
At a time when the resident eagles are high energy and stealing fish from osprey at every opportunity, the interlopers stole the show today and harassed osprey over and over.  It was quite the show today with the addition of the immature eagles as they didn't seem to care who was out there, they just wanted to play, steal and eat.
The osprey are in various phases of breeding. While most are incubating eggs, some are still building nests. The few pair still constructing their nests are close to full, and watching them fly with branches and sticks is something to behold and remains one of many favorite things to see on the river. Osprey have minds like an architect, as they build. As construction moves forward, a particular shaped branch is needed and one that only the osprey knows. Sometimes, it’s a straight, single piece while other times, it’s a large piece with lots of small branches. My favorite is the branch with a forked end. When an osprey approaches the nest with this shaped branch, they hover, and slowly drop down, turning the branch and inserting the single pointed end directly into a space between other branches in the nest. It’s so exact, or at least seems to be, as portrayed in the image of the osprey approaching its nest. Almost every osprey nest will last the season, while many last several seasons. Occasionally you'll find a pair of osprey that are determined to build in a bad location. One pair on Jones Neck have yet to chose a good location. It's their third year on the river, and eventually, they will learn what type of base it will take for a solid nest. I’ll get a photo of the nest that seems to be hovering on very thing branches. It fell last year just before the eggs hatched, and they rebuilt in the exact same spot. This year, hopefully, the nest makes it, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

While watching Walter, a summer resident osprey eat a shad, it occurred just how different osprey and eagles eat a fish. Fish is the main part of both species diets. While osprey are almost exclusive fish eaters, bald eagles will eat anything, but mainly fish. There are differences between the two including the size of the pieces they ingest as well as the pace they eat a fish. An eagle tears into a fish like a person taking a handful of popcorn and trying to fit/cram/shove it into his mouth and gulping it down. An osprey eats small pieces in little bites, like someone picking out a single piece of popcorn at a time, popping in into his mouth, 
then chewing and swallowing. One single kernel of popcorn at a time .... very methodical and intentional. Very different.
The breeding update this week has a couple of changes. Last week and the week before, Virginia & James did not show signs of a successful breeding season, but they didn't show signs of failure either. Today, it became clear that Virginia & James do not have any eaglets on the nest.  At 35 degrees out, neither bird went back to the nest at all, which in itself is not a complete sign of failure in mid-April. The eaglets are big enough now to self regulate their heat, so they would not die (more than likely) due to the cold this morning without the assistance of a parent. What sealed their season as “failed" was this … I texted a lady, who lives near Virginia & James and she has a clear view of their nest. I inquired as to the activity on their nest and explained I could not yet tell for certain if they were raising young. She let me know that not onlyare there no chicks on the nest, but they may have never laid any eggs. She did not see either eagle incubating on the nest all season. So Virginia & James, interesting, are out for eagle parents of the year. They have been so prolific over the last eleven years, and this is only their second failed breeding season.
Bandit, however, is raising at least one eaglet. I’m personally hoping for two. Both Bandit and Trey made forays directly back to the nest. That is a good thing, and most certainly means success. The foliage of the surrounding trees between their nest and mine (my boat on the river), has decreased the visibility of their nest by 95%. I can see just a tiny part of the nest, and I’m sure by next Sunday, that last 5% will be gone.  So it’ll be early to mid June before we know how many chicks Bandit & Trey will fledge. That’s the time the young eagles leave the nest for the first time (fledge). Bandit & Trey are doing well, and this could be Bandit’s third successful breeding season out of her eleven attempts.
Henry & Duchess are wonderful. This season is their first available season to breed as resident eagles. This pair is truly amazing as they came in, kicked tail feathers and created a viable territory. Soon after (April/May, 2019) they began constructing a nest and defended it all in the last year. So, 2020 is their first chance to raise young in their territory. That in itself, in my opinion, is a feat that not all newly mated eagle pairs can pull off. Many times, it’s a few years between the time a pair of eagles creates a territory and the time they successfully raise their first eaglet. Perhaps Henry & Duchess are an older pair that was removed/forced out from a previous territory for one reason or another. Perhaps they are 15 years old and already have 10 breeding seasons under their ‘eagle’ belts. Interesting stuff to think about.  Either way, if they succeed they will certainly win “Rookie Eagle Parents” of year.
Varina & EnonVirginia & James and Dark Beak & Merry have all failed.  Interestingly they are three territories in a row. All three, potentially didn’t even lay eggs. Dark Beak & Merry’s nest fell just before egg laying (or just after). The James River’s eagles lay their eggs in late January and early February, so they should have shown signs when I was on the river at regular intervals in mid February, but there were no signs.  All three pair are quite strong and doing well protecting and maintaining their territories. It’s what they do … they aren’t going anywhere, so until next year, they have to wait to be crowned “Eagle Parents of the Year”.
Baba & Pops and Barb & Treble both remain successful at the nest. Barb & Treble still have two large chicks with growing crops to feed (A crop is an area that holds food as the eagle rips/swallows/eats their big bites of fish or some other piece of wild meat. It’s stored in the crop prior to digestion.) For Baba & Pops, their nest is too far from the river, it is impossible to see. But their actions tell a story of success. Much like Bandit & Trey, it's going to be early to mid June to see how many eaglets they fledge. Perhaps three this year?  They have raised two many times, but never three. 
That takes us to the last pair of eagles in Jefferson’s Reach, Rebecca & John, and the only pair I do not have a pulse on their success or failure at the nest. Today, I didn’t even see them and they were the only pair where neither was present. It could be they were in a nearby field scavenging on the carcass of a white tailed deer.  Or perhaps they chased osprey at sunrise and stole their fish, or found a dead carp along a shoreline. Eagles are scavengers and it’s the wild James yonder out there, so they could have eaten, or were eating just about anything the walks, hops, crawls or flies. Hopefully next week signs will show a story of success. Could it be Rebecca & John who rise from the uncertain and win the coveted Discover the James “Eagle Parents of the Year” Award? This long coveted annual birding Award goes out in September, after all the eaglets of Jefferson’s Reach have left their parents territories. Gone for good, to spend the next five years of their lives wandering the Chesapeake Bay watershed as they mature in our nations symbol, the “mature” bald eagle. 

The great blue heron were busy flying around the river, and staying somewhat close to the various rookeries (clusters of nests). While viewing a small rookery, we heard a croaking sound. A single bird calling out, “Qualk, qualk, qualk!” Over and over it called out, seemingly in distress. This led us to think the bird was on the ground, perhaps fallen from its nest. The acoustics of the river bank against the budding shrubs and canopy of trees fooled us. After a very close examination of the area and half dozen nests in the rookery, we ultimately spotted the young bird safe in its nest, guarded by its mother. A great blue heron chick, the first hatching, was frantically calling out for food. Some great blue heron are sitting on eggs, but many are still constructing their nests and have not yet laid eggs. We did not expect to hear or see any young great blue heron yet, but there it was. Incubation takes about four weeks (27-29 days) for great blue heron, meaning, this bird laid its egg(s) in early March. Rather early, and I hope to see this little fella next week, a little bigger, and if we’re lucky, a photo will be included.
I feel very fortunate to be on the river once a week these past few weeks. Until this Covid pandemic is well passed (and beyond), I'll to continue to share the river with you through photographs and words. Please let me know if you have any questions about the eagles of Jefferson’s Reach or anything else river related. You can email me at Mike@DiscovertheJames.com and I’ll respond directly to you, and maybe even make it a part of next week's entry.
All photos from this story were taken by Lynda Richardson, the morning of this boatride. Thank you Lynda!! And thanks to you, take care, stay safe and healthy. Until next week ...
Capt. Mike
Capt. Mike Ostrander
Discover the James