Eagle Update May 31, 2020

It’s funny how fast time goes by. It feels like yesterday when I last wrote about the eagles, but a week out of town and a few days on either side of that trip has somehow has added up to almost three weeks. A lot has changed since then, but one thing is for certain, it was darn nice to be back on the river. For the last day in May, the air was brisk … it was still sweatshirt weather.  My favorite quite honestly, and with the winds blowing moderately out of the north-northeast, it was downright chilly. Scores of small fish were dimpling the surface of the old river channel, and I guessed them to be river herring, more than likely working their way back out to the Chesapeake Bay, then the Atlantic Ocean to spend another year at sea until their annual return back to our river to spawn, next spring. 
It was early, close to 7am and I was running my first trip with a paying passenger. My first since March 13. Discover the James is now allowed to carry passengers on Eagle Tours once again, but the passenger total has been reduced to three people. So my wife, Lynda and I hosted Barbara Houston and Judy Jones, two veteran eagle photographers one might call … frequent flyers. We each wore face masks, another of the new regs for the Discovery Barge II (my boat) while on board. I wore one that covers my nose, mouth and neck and quickly realized, you cannot drink your coffee through the mask. Yeah, I did that.
As the morning progressed we realized cuckoos were all over the river.  Not the kind you might be thinking of. We heard one call out, then another responded in a number of places along Jefferson’s Reach. Yellow Billed Cuckoos! What a magnificent bird to see (and hear). We were on the east side of Jones Neck, lining up along the shore to look for prothonotary warblers when Judy and Lynda said, almost simultaneously, “A Cuckoo!!” Sure enough, right in front of us were two yellow billed cuckoos … perhaps a mated pair. They were filtering around in the tree directly in front of us, about ten feet away. With one bird out in the open, only feet away and locking into it with binoculars made the moment pretty special as that cuckoo looked so fluffy and soft and very alert. After a couple of minutes, they were both gone …. not far, but too far for us to see through the foliage. It was interesting to hear their unmistakable calls throughout the morning in multiple spots, so as I stated earlier, the cuckoos were out on the river Saturday morning.
Most mornings on the river, the wildlife is active from the moment you start pick up your binoculars, while other mornings may take a bit of time and looking around to kick in. For this last day in May, it didn’t take long to become spectacular. We worked our way through Bandit & Trey’s territory rather quickly as they were busy defending their territory against a single adult bald eagle, who took their attentions away from the nest. With the little time we were able to observe them, there was no indication that there was success at the nest still, but again, they were busy chasing off the interloper. The good news was we’d be coming back through their territory again, so perhaps we could gather the intel needed to show signs of a successful breeding season. Over the past couple check ins on them, there was very little to pin hope on, but there were forays back to the nest and that’s good and meant there was still hope.
Rounding the next bend we entered into Henry & Duchess’s territory. These two fabulous eagles, in their first breeding season, are in the midst of a record setting season for this area. Two weeks ago on my last trip to the river, they had the first fledged eagle, who was named Lorna (to read more about Lorna, click here). At first look, no eagles were in sight so we slowly maneuvered about their territory, checking each little nook and cranny they might be hiding in. With the spring foliage fully in bloom, it’s harder to locate them, but if they are there, generally you can find them. Eventually, Henry flew from the swamp, over the tree line, across the river and landed in one of his favorite perches, a nook I had checked only moments before. This particular perch is like a thrown gives him full view of his territory, high on a bluff, and equally important, gives him full view of his nest. Shortly after he landed, one of his offspring followed and perched. It was Lorna, the female offspring who fledged on or about May 10. Watching her and sharing her story, we heard the squeaky call of a newly fledged eagle flying behind us, on the other side of the river, working his way from the upriver side of his parent’s territory and flying directly towards us … Mondo was coming too … he too had left the nest … calling out for attention, food, or what ever it is that newly fledged eagles are in need of from their parents. “Probably food” we figured. It was a goose bumped, inspiring moment to see both fledged eaglets, Lorna & Mondo in flight. To read more about why these birds were named Lorna & Mondo, click here.
When you see an eagle and an osprey together, usually fighting in one way or another, the eagle’s body is much larger, and the comparison gives you a real sense of how big an eagle really is. Osprey are large raptors themselves, but dwarfed by the bulk of an eagle. Songbirds are tiny birds, probably the size of an eagles head, and often times jump into the act and will harass an eagle. Last year there was one particular kingbird that would chase Dark Beak when he flew to close to a set of trees in his territory.  The kingbird would give chase, peck at Dark Beak’s head and ultimately (and many times too), land and ride on the back of the eagle! It was like watching a rodeo as the eagle would buck back and fourth trying to bounce that little songbird off his back. Often times the ride would last hundreds of yards!!
On Sunday, a red winged blackbird gave Mondo chase, staying right on his back side. Judy Jones managed a wonderful shot of the the red winged blackbird giving Mondo chase, as he flew across the river to catch up with Dad and his sibling. Some moments missed can be relived through photos… an image can transport one right back to an exact moment. In this photo you can see why they are called the redwing blackbird. 
We soon found our way into Annie & Walter’s territory and nest. This pair of osprey were busy with mom on the nest feeding their young. There were two very young osprey osprey heads, bobbing and swaying taking small pieces of fish from Annie’s beak as she ripped tiny portions from the fish tightly wrapped in her talons. No sounds, just the movement to the two week-old heads. We noticed two other osprey nests with chicks being fed, so after the five to six-week gestation period, the osprey eggs have started to hatch. And for these hatchings, they will remain in the nest, being fed nearly exclusively fish for a little over seven weeks, until they will fledge and begin the next chapter in their lives.
Baba & Pops, perhaps the oldest mated pair of eagles on the river have had a successful breeding season once again. While in their territory, we watched Pops, perched in a sycamore tree for quite some time. Baba came in and shortly there after, their fledgling followed. Lynda Richardson captured a wonderful image (to the right) of Pops with the unnamed fledgling in the background. So, for now, they have one fledgling, but rumor has it, there were two in the nest. Perhaps it will or has already fledged, and as always, time has a good way of telling the story. Perhaps even as soon as next week! 
Barb & Treble, another young pair who settled in Jefferson’s Reach a few years ago has their second successful breeding season in a row. Two weeks ago, they had two eaglets on the nest. Neither had fledged, but were close … both high on the nest rail, flapping and hopping, getting some ‘air time’ in what seemed to moments before fledging. This past Sunday morning, neither mom, dad or either fledgling was to be seen. No activity at the nest and nothing in the tree lines on either shore. The two have fledged and perhaps they were very close by, in the field at the top of the bluff where their nest sits high in a pine tree. Young eagles, once they have left the nest can certainly land and take off, which makes it very easy to land in an open field, next to carrion, feed and take off again. Much easier than perching in a tree, holding a fish that mom or dad gave them and trying to figure out how to perch AND hold the fish in it’s talons AND eat …. all at the same time. A vital talent they will soon learn, as that is high on the priority list of what the parents teach their young early after fledging. No time is wasted as each act a parent does teaches their offspring some necessary skill or helps ignite some of their instincts needed for survival. Eagles are great teachers and care deeply for their offspring and mates as seen in the way they will protect them at all costs.
After a very successful trip through Jefferson's Reach, checking on the various species of songbirds, raptors and shorebirds, we made our way back towards the dock, but not before double checking on Bandit & Trey. Both eagles were in their territory, seemingly relaxes and long done with that pesky intruder from a few hours before. Bandit came in close and gave us a great show but neither showed signs of activity at the nest. Just before we headed back to the dock, she grabbed a fish, flew upriver, banked sharply to the west and made a direct line of flight over the trees and to the nest. Just enough info to keep our hopes alive that she will indeed have a fledgling soon. "Until next week Bandit", I silently said to her as I fired up the engine for the last time that morning.
Capt. Mike