Hurricane Irene and the Bald Eagles of Jefferson's Reach

 September 6, 2011. Hurricane Irene did quite a bit of damage to eagle’s nests on the tidal James River, knocking many of them completely out of the trees. I spoke with Dr. Bryan Watts from the Center For Conservation Biology at William & Mary, who is a leading bald eagle researcher. He said a recent aerial review of eagle nests in the lower James River showed a high number were blown down, especially around the Hopewell area. The territorial, resident, eagles will more than likely rebuild close to where their nests were, but time will tell.  

Jefferson’s Reach is a few miles upriver of Hopewell, and the five pair of resident eagles had a rough time. Two visible nests have damage. Trees currently conceal two other nests (these become visible when the leaves fall from the trees, usually by mid-November). The fifth nest is too far from the river to be seen at any time of the year.
Bandit & Smokey and Baba & Pops live in the visible nests. Bandit & Smokey’s nest is completely gone while the other is nearly destroyed. Baba & Pops’ nest started to fall about a month ago and the hurricane knocked half of the nest out of the tree. I have not seen Baba & Pops since the storm, and remain hopeful they are ok (NOTE: I saw one of them today, September 10, on an eagle tour this morning. It was a great sight to see one of the mature eagles with this year’s offspring). The last time their nest fell was almost two years ago and they rebuilt in the same tree … and will hopefully do the same again.   A few days after the hurricane, I took the Discovery Barge II over a mudflat and tied up to shore, walked through a swamp and up a hill to get to Baba & Pops’ fallen nest. I found a pile of sticks from the half of the nest at the base of the pine tree. I picked up three “eagle branches” from the ground to bring back to the boat and use to show what bald eagles make their nests with. The nest that fell two years ago was also there, in a mound, covered by pine needles. 
Bandit & Smokey completely lost their nest, including snapped limbs around the perimeter of where it used to be. This is the third time in the last two years their nest fell. The first time was in October ‘09 and they rebuilt further inland, out of sight from the river. It apparently fell again in February ’10 because they rebuilt again in a large oak tree next to the river. The sad part of this nest falling in February was they would have been incubating their eggs, and lost them. I am surprised this most recent nest lasted for so long as it was built on the outer limbs of the oak tree and held on for almost a year and a half.
Of the remaining three pair of eagles, two of the three pair have of the same flight patterns, hopefully meaning their nests are in still usable. Virginia & James’ nest is blocked by a stand of pine trees, and would have been on the leeward side of the storm. Their nest probably had the best chance of any of the eagles of Jefferson’s Reach. Varina & Enon’s nest is far off the riverbank, but visible in the fall. They have a huge nest that would have taken the brunt of the northerly winds during Irene. Rebecca & John’s nest is far off of the river, and only they know whether it is still standing. Their nest used to be on Jones Neck Island, but they rebuilt on the western shore of the mainland, on Varina Farms over this past winter of 2010-11. Right now their flight patterns take them to the site of their current nest. Time will tell.
Note: There is an article in today’s (September 10, 2011) Richmond Times Dispatch on this subject. Click here to view. –Capt. Mike
The Photo's Stories:  Above Left:  This is the half of Baba & Pops' nest that recently fell.  You can see there is a pile of fresh eagle branches scattered all around the ground.  Some of the pine needles may have been from the inside base of the nest.   -- Photo by Capt. Mike 
Below, right:  Looking past the recently fallen branches (on top) you can see the old nest that fell nearly two years ago.  It is covered in pine needles and hard to see, but two years ago the entire nest fell, landing upside down.  A huge pine branch, one of the main branches that was holding up the nest, snapped and the result was a complete loss for the eagle's nest.  It fell in early November of 2009, and the pair immediately started to rebuild.  Each of the last two years they had successful breeding seasons, raising one eaglet each in 2010 and 2011.  -- Photo by Capt. Mike