Late Winter: James River Bald Eagle Report

February 2013

Since December, the James River's resident bald eagles have been busy preparing their nests for their breeding season. Observing eight pair of resident bald eagles over the last four years has given me a general knowledge of their their annual life cycle, and a base to grow and learn from them.  Five of these resident pair live in an area known as Jefferson’s Reach.
A "pair of resident eagles" means a male and a female eagle have bonded and created a territory large enough to offer the basic needs of a pair. This includes trees big enough to build a nest and hunting grounds to include the river and land. A resident pair of eagles will remain in their territory 365 days a year, until death or until one or both are replaced by other eagles. One territory … one pair of bald eagles … and very protective of their space, which originally took fighting with other eagles to create and define boundaires. 
In the resident eagle world, winter time means its breeding season. By now, early February, they are done constructing and repairing their nests, the process is often called "nestoration" the bald eagle community. Both male and female are active in nest building but the male does most of the gathering of branches. They often construct their nests in pine trees, but oaks and sycamores are also used. They generally build in the upper section of large, sturdy trees, most often around the trunk but occasionally on the outer branches. Nest materials such as branches sticks are put together like a giant jigsaw puzzle until the nest is formed. Grasses and pine needles are placed in the bottom to create a soft bottom, where a bowl, is built to help the eagles incubate their eggs. The typical width of an eagles nest is about six feet.
Who knows where they get all of that wood, but open fields, and sticks floating in the river can certainly act as eagle lumber yards. I once saw an eagle perched on the large branch of a dead tree. It started to flap its wings but kept its talons grasped on the branch and all the folks on the boat and i wondered what in the world it was doing? Moments later, we heard a loud, "SNAP" as the branch broke and the eagle flew away with it, straigh to the nest. 
The only way to verify an eagle pair has an egg (or eggs) is to see one incubating it's clutch on the nest. Most of the nests are not visible from the river, so relying on the number of eagles you see can give you an idea if they are on eggs or not.  When observing a territory, and only one eagle is present for a number of days in a row, it’s a safe bet the mate is sitting on eggs. As of early February, just a couple territories had one bird visible at any one time, meaning they probably have laid eggs. A few territories had both eagles visible, off the nest, meaning they had yet to lay eggs.
Over the last three years, four out of the five pair of resident eagles in Jefferson’s Reach have hatched eggs and fledged young eagles.  Only one territory has not had a successful breeding season … Bandit (female) has not hatched an egg yet. My hope remains very high that Bandit and her new mate, the Duke, will hatch their a clutch of eggs.  Long story short, Bandit is an eight-year-old bald eagle and has not yet been successful in breeding and last year she did something unusual, she changed mates. Two years ago she was close, but a pair of intruding eagles came in and crushed her eggs in late February. These intruders were probably in the process of trying to take over Bandit’s territory.  
I remain hopeful 2013 will be the year for Bandit & the Duke, although they still have not laid eggs.  I’ll post on my Facebook page with updates on Bandit.  Here’s hoping for a successful year Bandit!
Photo Credits ...  Top right:  Always on guard for intruders, this pair of eagles is sitting on the nest. Both male and female are present and looking downriver towards something in particular, perhaps another eagle. --Photo by Judy Self.
Middle left: Bandit snatches a gizzard shad from the river. This photo was taken on Febrary 3, 2013 and her mate was perched on a tree nearby. With both male and female visable, they have yet to lay eggs. --Photo by Martin Evans

Bottom right:  Moments after Bandit snagged the fish from the river, she flew to one of her favorite perches, landed and began to eat. With the fish clamped against the wood with her powerful talons, using her sharp beak, she ripped the shad piece by peice, eating the entire fish. --Photo by Martin Evans