Interesting Observations with Bandit


September 20, 2011. Bald Eagles are wild creatures and have to adjust to change … constantly. Bandit & Smokey are a pair of resident bald eagles who live in Jefferson’s Reach on the James River. Of the five pair of resident eagle in Jefferson’s Reach, they are perhaps, the eagles that have had to ‘adjust’ and deal with the most misfortune over the last three years. They have been plagued by their inability to build a nest in a solid location and unable to complete a successful breeding season. Today, I watched a very interesting interaction between multiple bald eagles, including Bandit & Smokey, and it has me perplexed, theorizing and hypothesizing greatly.
To set the stage, of what might be happening, here is a little bit of history of Bandit & Smokey ... 
They can build a sound nest, they just have problems with the location of where they construct it. Their nests have been shallow, ‘disk’ shaped because they have been building on the outer branches a tree. Perhaps they would do better by building in the solid location of a tree, where the truck branches off into other branches. Using the trunk and a few solid branches, bald eagles can build deeper, bowl shaped nests. 
Since the autumn of 2009, their nest has fallen three times. Granted, it took hurricane Irene to take out the most recent nest, but the location was on the outer limbs of a large oak tree. It lasted in those oak branches for about 18 months. I can only imagine all the windy days and storms where that nest was uncomfortably tossed around. The first time it fell, in November 2009, their next was also built in the outer limbs of an oak. They rebuilt somewhere on the interior of Hatcher Island, out of sight of the river. Their nest fell three months later near the end of February of 2010 when they would have been incubating eggs. In March of 2010, the began carrying sticks, again, in their talons and built another nest in an oak, the one which recently fell during hurricane Irene. 
As for Bandit & Smokey’s ability to breed successfully … in 2009, there were no immature eagles with them (I started following them in the mid summer of 2009), so I assumed they didn’t have any eaglets that year. Two years ago, their clutch was probably destroyed by the February 2010 nest falling. During this year’s breeding season, in February of 2011, a pair of intruding eagles harassed them for a number of days.  These eagles were probably trying to take over Bandit & Smokey’s territory. They would dive towards the nest over and over, eventually luring one of the eagles out to defend. At other times, the intruders would land about a hundred yards from the nest, within eyesight … looking directly at Bandit & Smokey … as if to taunt them. Bandit & Smokey would sit in their nest, crying out with stressful wails. A few days later both Bandit and Smokey were off the nest, giving up on or somehow loosing their clutch. Perhaps they were both lured off the nest and the intruders flew in crushing the eggs with their talons. It was a sad event seeing Bandit & Smokey off the nest this past February, knowing they had been diligently incubating their clutch. 
Today, something happened that I just couldn’t explain … yet. Bandit was in the main channel across from River’s Bend Golf Course, perched alone in the top of a dead tree. Smokey was nowhere in sight, but that is not unusual. She flew from the dead treetop into the old river channel and settled into one of her favorite perches. I pulled the Discovery Barge II near to her, tossed a fresh gizzard shad into the river and she flew down to grab it. She lifted off the branch, glided down towards the river, we heard her wings cutting through the air as she snagged the shad from the river’s surface. A swoosh and splash!
Once she had the fish, Bandit flew to her favorite eating location, a short, stubby branch protruding from the trunk of an oak tree. As we watched her eat, she dropped her head and let out a loud warning call as a pair of eagles flew overhead. They landed in a tree, just out of sight of Bandit and us. Bandit finished her fish then flew somewhere out of sight. The other pair of eagles flew into a nearby dead tree. Soon after, Bandit flew back into view, and came in close to the two eagles perched … as if to chase them out of her territory. One of the eagles flew off and Bandit landed next to the one that didn’t fly away. I couldn’t tell if it was her mate Smokey or another bird? Regardless, it was an odd behavior.
About two hours later, I came back to the same area with another group of eagle viewers. They were a knowledgeable group, many following the Norfolk Botanical Garden eagles for years. (click here to see more about NBG eagles).
When rounding the bend, into the old river channel, and into the heart of their territory we spotted a mature bald eagle in a tree along the riverbank. Assuming it was Bandit we proceeded upriver. Suddenly another bald eagle flew from the right bank, carrying a dead fish. This bird flew to the favorite eating location, on the stubby limb. As this eagle ate it’s fish, Bandit flew in landing next to him. This is where things gets a little weird.
We watched the two birds closely through binoculars when we noticed something very odd …. The bird next to Bandit looked like it had a band on it’s leg too. Bandit has a band on her right leg, hence the name … BanditSmokey does not have a band! This was another male bird next to her. He looked different too. This bird was bigger than Smokey. Everyone on board agreed they saw what looked like a band on the other bird’s leg. Was this a band or just a weird angle of the birds leg? After a few minutes of the birds perching next to each other, Bandit flew off the limb, spotting a dead fish, and came down to the river to scoop it up. At that point she flew back to the feeding limb and started to eat her fish next to the other eagle.
What was happening? Lots of unanswered questions with Bandit & Smokey. Is Bandit trying to find another mate because of the hardships they have faced as a mated pair? Is there competition between Smokey and another male bird coming into the area? Did she ‘choose’ between the two today or in the process of choosing? Something is happening here, and only time will tell. And for what is exactly happening here, only the eagles know for sure. We can only surmise and hypothesize. 
NOTE: September 24, 2011. I was out watching Bandit today and she was with a male bird. Nothing unusual here, but the this bird acted differently than Smokey, as he perched in new areas, including flying and walking along the rocky shore on the eastern side of the old river channel. We didn’t get a close look at him to see if he had a band. I’ll be out again tomorrow!
NOTE: September 25, 2011.  It is confirmed that the new bird with Bandit is a banded bird.  This is not Smokey, and it appears that he may have been chased away again this morning.  Wow, this is an amazing turn of events with Bandit.  Time to learn about a new bird, and name him too.  It's also time to say goodbye to a pretty neat bald eagle.  Smokey will be off to who knows where, looking for another mate, territory and life.  Good luck Smokey!   More to come on this ...
The Photo's Stories:  Top Right:  Bandit is perched in a tree, on a cool fall day. --Photo by Bob Jones Jr.
Bottom Left:  Bandit left her perch, from the top right image, flew down along the river's surface and picked up a gizzard shad.  --Photo by Bob Jones Jr.