Eagle Update, First Fledged Eagle on May 10!

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Thu, 05/14/2020 - 20:11
Observations from May 10, 2020. Mother’s Day. “And a fine Mother’s Day it is”, I thought when seeing the first fledged eaglet of the season. Lynda, my wife and staff photographer, spotted it first, perched on a branch of an old, long dead tree. This particular newly fledged eagle must have been the one branching last week in the nest, just across the creek, about a hundred feet away. This eagle was looking somewhat confident and very regal at the age of three months.
I tried every angle of drifting and motoring the Discovery Barge II, trying to get a view of the nest and second young eagle from Henry & Duchess’ clutch. The spring foliage near full and the nest is fully hidden once again. I can only assume the second eagle from this clutch will fledge this week, if not already.
The eagle still in the nest must be watching its sibling from the nest rail. Undoubtedly flapping hard and fast enough to create lift … hopping and momentarily leaving the nest a foot high at a time, hovering and gaining confidence. Perhaps it will hop and flap a little too high on a windy day and a gust of wind catches the wings of the young bird in mid hover and launches it into flight … another fledgling gets christened into the next level of development.
Henry & Duchess arrived on the James in early 2019 and fought two pair of resident eagles (one pair on each side) to ‘carve out’ a territory. They managed to take a few hundred yards of Varina & Enon’s territory, and took over a quarter mile of Bandit & Trey’s territory. Since they secured each end of two territories, they also get the rather large buffer zone, which is the “no fly zone” between eagle territories, thus completing their modest territory. By April 2019, it was apparent these eagles meant business and they began construction of their nest. By the time they finished it was too late to lay eggs, so this year, 2020 is their inaugural breeding season on the river. 
I’ve seen many mated pairs of eagles come into Jefferson’s Reach and try to create a territory. Most of the time, they move on after a couple of days of fighting, and rarely is a pair is successful, let alone raise young on their first try. When I started watching the eagles of Jefferson's Reach, over ten years ago, there were five pair. Now there are eight. Of the three new pair, only Henry & Duchess had a successful breading season on their first chance. Their first fledgling, seen on May 10, is the earliest eagle to leave the nest in the eleven breeding seasons I’ve observed by almost ten days. Amazing success for a new pair. It makes you wonder if Henry & Duchess were displaced by another pair of mated eagles and were forced to find a new territory. Instead of the young new pair of resident mature eagles, at the age of five or six years old, perhaps Henry & Duchess are much older, wiser and experienced.
Another interesting thought is that the two newest pair of resident bald eagles, Henry & Duchess and Barb & Treble have had the two earliest dates noted for their offspring to fledge. Last year Barb & Treble fledged an eagle between May 18 and May 20. I wonder if that is the new normal for the eagles making territories for the first time. Perhaps the new crop of resident eagles will breed sooner and the older pairs of eagles will continue with the seasonal timing of late May and early June fledging.
When an eagle fledges, it’s a joyous moment worthy of celebration, and we celebrate on the Discovery Barge II by naming each of the fledglings. The people on the boat, at the time of fledging get to name the eagle, and the only rule is everyone has to agree, including the Captain. Well, these are not normal times and the naming of the first two eagles, this year, was inspired by a passionate Facebook post by a nurse/photographer/mother, one of many amazing people doing amazing things to help battle Coronavirus.
I was moved by a Facebook Post by Nora Milligan. Nora is an incredible nature photographer and one hell of a nurse. She left the comforts of Richmond, VA and went to New York City to help on the front line of the COVID 19 Pandemic in NYC. While fighting this invisible beast and seeing the horrors of COVID, and the mental toll it takes on her coworkers, nurses, aids and doctors, she sent out a heart felt post on social media. She also included a link to a story about two of her coworkers who killed themselves over the mental stresses they endured. Lorna Breen, an emergency room doctor and John Mondello a rookie Emergency Medical Technician took their lives for the cause.
I was moved by their stories, and send Nora a note of support and thought we should name the first two fledglings this year after these two medical heroes. Lorna & Mondo. Since there is already an eagle named John (resident adult), Mondo seemed like a fitting name for John Mondello. Looking at the fledgling perched early Mother’s Day morning, I thought, “There's Lorna.” Mondo will be named when he leaves the nest. Yeah! for Lorna & Mondo! To read more about Lorna Breen and John Mondello, click here.
Other notes from the morning include a surprising lack of great blue heron nests in a couple of historically productive rookeries, or heronries. The shallow wading great blue heron generally nests in clusters. Often times, many nests a single tree, or spread out over a number of trees in a tight area. Two popular nesting sites for these birds were almost bare. One rookery had three visible nests in the row of sycamore trees that normally housed 20 to 30 nests or more. The other great blue heron rookery had three nests, when normally there are ten or more.
The river is full of surprises, and to see them, you have to keep a sharp eye on things, and often times, recognizing a shape, or a movement and knowing what it is such as a wild turkey flying across the river. Wild turkey often fly, but you have to know what they are and recognize them quickly to enjoy because it’s over before you know it. I pointed one out to Lynda and she turned and fired a few shots of her digital camera off and captured a really nice image.
All birds are beautiful, even vultures. Some of my favorites are birds not often seen, those with brilliant colors like the red of a scarlet tanager or the blue of an indigo bunting. I can’t wait to see my second scarlet tanager, as the first and only sighting was way to quick. Indigo bunting … I love that name. I can’t help but think of a baseball coach going up to one of his ball players and stating, “If Carl gets on, we need to advance him. I’m sending you in to go bunting.”
While you may not like my humor, I hope you enjoy the photo of this indigo bunting we saw on Mother’s Day. Until next week …
Capt. Mike
Photos by Lynda Richardson

Eagle Update, May 3, 2020

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Mon, 05/04/2020 - 19:22

May 3, 2020

I motored my pontoon boat out of the slip at the Richmond Yacht Basin and into the flood waters. The morning was bright with full sun that had already risen above the trees. The browns, blues and greens popped, like big elements of a painting ... almost a color overload. Hundreds of hues so prominent in every field of view dominated by the muddy brown James, just two days removed from another moderate flood … nearly 14 feet at the Westham Gage. The green of the vines, shrubs and trees back lit by the bright blue sky, so vibrant and alive. And by mid-morning, as the clouds overtook the blue sky and dulled some of the colors, others began to pop as we came closer to the shorelines with deeper water. The ferns came to life. It was awesome.

Overall, the eagles were quiet and no news on the breeding front, which is also good news. The four pair of resident eagles are still raising young as all made flights back to the nest. Soon, the eaglets will be taking their first flight (fledging) with the expected date of the first eaglet to fledge around May 20. The two nests that can be seen from the river both had eaglets visible on them. Barb & Treble’s nest, is easily seen and were both on the nest, with their two, large offspring. One adult perched on a limb outside of the nest while the other three were in the nest, each one feeding, probably on some type of carrion brought back to the nest from a field, or a catfish or shad brought in from the river.

The eagle/osprey encounters were few. I did watch Varina & Enon as they perched high in their territory, keeping a keen eye on the osprey hunting for fish. As soon as one would catch a fish, one of the eagles was off for the chase. The first two attempts, the eagles failed in stealing the fish. They caused the osprey to drop their catch in the river at the first close encounter/attack. On the third attempt, the eagles gave the osprey a head start. I’ve seen eagles give the osprey head starts before, but today I wondered if the eagles know which osprey is which. For example, if Bob Jr. or Lilly, the pair of osprey upriver of Varina & Enon are fishing downriver and catch one, perhaps Varina & Enon (eagles) are waiting for Bob Jr. or Lilly (osprey) to fly upriver, back toward their nest, passing closer to the perched eagles, making the flight to steal the fish a much shorter distance. 

I believe the eagles know each osprey that nest close by. Somehow they can distinguish the differences between the osprey, and pehaps it's as simple as looking them in the eye. I can only think of one eagle territory in Jefferson’s Reach that has more than three osprey nests within it … Virginia & James. With that thought, an eagle would really only have to recognize four to six osprey when are working the river, hunting the shallows for fish. At times, there are other osprey moving up and down the river, but overall, I believe they recognize each of the nearby nesting osprey. Eagles are smart, have incredible eye sight and they remember. 

Speaking of the osprey, that nest I spoke about last week … the one precariously balanced/built on the outskirts of a sycamore tree has fallen. They were incubating eggs, and it’s the second year in a row, their nest has fallen, only this time it was much earlier in the incubation period and while they have already started to rebuid (nearly in the same spot again!), perhaps they will have time for another clutch.

Curiously, these osprey need names. Whomever reads this should submit names for these osprey below and we can get them named for next week. The naming of birds always happens on the boat, but this seems like a fine time to change that up. No other changes in the other osprey in Jefferson's Reach nests, except the one still being built last week now seems to be finished. There did not appear to be an osprey incubating eggs yet, so perhaps next week …

Other notes on the river include seeing the minor bees along the south facing bluffs starting to emerge. This colony I’ve watched for years has thousands of bees ready to emerge in late April and early May, but this particular morning only a few were active. The temperature was warm, so I expect if they had emerged, they would have been active, so perhaps the colony as a whole is just a little late as compared to last year. Next week should be a different story, especially if the morning is a warm one. I like to motor the Discovery Barge II slowly, pull up to the bluff, turn off the motor and listen. The hum of 1000’s of minor bees buzzing along the bluff and the sound bouncing off the hard pack sand/silt is amazingly loud, especially when you cup your ears and face them. The male minor bee lives for about four weeks as an adult while the females will live up to six weeks.  By July 4, they are long gone until next year, late April and May of 2021.

The Prothonotary Warblers were quite active this week. These tiny birds sure pack a punch with the loud calls they exude. We spotted some high in the trees as well, and a couple along the bank, some in pockets of light such as the one in the photo to the right. Click here to be transferred to the Audubon Field Guide website and listen to the sound of a Prothonotary Warbler. Scroll down the page, on the right side you will find 'Songs and Calls'. Click those calss. 

The great blue heron eggs are starting to hatch and many heron are starting to spend a little more time in their feeding territories. I saw Charlize the Heron fly into her feeding territory to feed on small shad. Charlize is an interesting bird as she will let you get close. The photo (upper right) is her after going into the water to get a fish to eat. Once they eat, often times, they’ll drink some river water, then ‘rouse’.  Rousing is when a bird fluffs its feathers out, shakes the water off and then settles back to normal feather placement. The stop action of these birds during a rousing moment can be quite fun to view.

All in all, it was a quiet morning on the river. Even without the usual activity level, there is always so much more going on within the ecosystem. Add in some of the amazing "Jefferson's Reach" history, well, that is one fine morning full of things to think and talk about. Until next week ….

Capt. Mike


Eagle Update, April 26, 2020

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Mon, 04/27/2020 - 20:05
It was a cool and calm morning on the river yesterday, Sunday, April 26, 2020. Not working due to the COVID pandemic has me perplexed as to what day of the week it is let alone what date. All I can tell you is Sundays are my river days to check on the eagles. Yesterday, just after leaving Bandit & Trey's territory, I received a text from a friend, Stephon Sterns. He asked me to wish Bandit a Happy Birthday the next time I saw her. My processers were running at full speed and I realized, "Hey! It's April 26 ... Bandit's birthday!" What a great day to be on the water, and four hours later, on my way back to the dock, I wished her, out loud, "Happy 15th Birthday!" from Stephon and his family as she perched high in an old dead oak tree with her mate Trey. I managed a pretty good photo of her as seen to the right ... not bad for a cell phone!!
The wisteria blooms have faded and the crossvine flowers didn’t appear to be as prominent along the shoreline. Both add beautiful colors to any scene, and occasionally a warbler will land within the wisteria’s purple flowers or the crossvine’s yellow flowers with deep red throats …. a ready-made moment for photo of the week. 
I floated silently, with the engine off for long periods, listening for different warbler calls. The activity was low based on how few birds were calling, especially in areas that attract many species. Even the prothonotary warblers were quiet. These beautiful, bright yellow birds and their loud calls are (usually) everywhere along the river banks. Perhaps it was the long night of rain we had.
It occurred to me, about an hour into my solo journey that this was the first time (ever) I did a full Eagle Tour of Jefferson’s Reach by myself. I spent four hours slowly cruising the river watching and taking in as much as I could. It was amazing to see the birds without talking about them and it didn’t take long to realize this trip was different. I had a heightened appreciation for what I was doing, almost like I was the passenger and not the captain. My boat’s first mate, photographer (and wife), Lynda, was unable to join me and while initially that seemed like a bummer … it turned out to be a deep, appreciated personal event. As Captain, Passenger and Photographer for the day, I took pictures with my cell phone. Some of them came out pretty nice and since these are my photos, and being a photography-dark-room guy from way back, I’ve converted them Black and White … a return of sorts to an old passion.  i hope it works!
I did find out another piece of the puzzle this week, and that is how many chicks Baba & Pops have in the nest. The nest is only visible if you are hiking and put yourself in the right spot (publicly available). The Discovery Barge II has many eyes on the river, including two of the best … Barbara Houston and Judy Jones. They are becoming part eagle with the amount of time they spendphotographing and learning about them. Barbara and Judy, each sent a photo that shows two large eaglets on Baba & Pops’ nest. Historically, the pair has raised two chicks during the breeding season more often than not over the eleven years of observations. 
There was no sign of Rebecca & John, so still no answer of a successful breeding season. The two pair with no activity at the nest were quiet. Virginia & James were not present and Varina & Enon were perched together, quietly watching over their domain. Dark Beak & Merry were full of life, flying from shoreline to shoreline chasing off intruders. They seemed to be the only ones bothered by intruders during today's observations … much different than last week when many pairs were harrassed by interlopers scattered throughout Jefferson’s Reach.
Two nests are visible of the eight territories and I had good views of both. The size of the eaglets is surprising. From the river, the nests are a pretty good distance away, and the eaglets look to be the size of the adults. Barb & Treble had one of their two chicks perched up on the nest rail. Last year Barb & Treble were the first to produce fledglings and perhaps they will again this year. Henry & Duchess had one of their offspring, perhaps a little more advanced in the process of fledging. One of their young was perched up and outside of the nest on a large limb. When an eaglet gets closer to fledging they will leave the safety of the nest and begin to explore the outer branches around the nest. This process is called “branching”, and is another step closer to fledging, or flying for the first time. To think about first flight .. wow … how incredible that must be! To take flight with keen eyesight and see the surroundings, the parents and nest from such a different angle ... to be in that moment of the unknown. But then again, flying is just another step into the eagle’s life. It will eventually leave its parent’s territory and have to elude the attacks of other eagles, and survive harsh winters, hurricanes, heat waves, manmade structures, accidental poison ingestion and other challenges to become the next wave of resident bald eagles. Flying, a natural element of being an eagle, seems easy compared to the challenges to be faced over the next four to five years. That’s how long it takes an eagle to become fully mature, with a full white head and tail and dark brown body ... ready to find a mate and secure a territory, ideally for life.
April 26 … Bandit’s Birthday! Or Hatchday to be more appropriate. On April 26, 2005, an egg hatched in the Birmingham Zoo in Alabama. Fifteen years, eleven breeding seasons and three mates later, Bandit is thriving on her island and the surrounding shorelines of Henrico and Chesterfield counties. At this moment, Bandit & Trey are tending to their brood at the nest. How many eaglets do they have is a great question and should be answered in the next few weeks. All the resident pair of eagles that were in the running for “Eagle Parents of the Year” last week are still in the running. No changes.
Osprey continue to amaze with their hyper territorial actions after laying their eggs. Bob Jr. & Lilly, who nest across the river from Henry & Duchess continue to fly the entire width of the river when Henry or Duchess leave the treeline and venture out over the river. The osprey are relentless and will harass the eagles all the way back to their side of the river, but not quite to their nest. Osprey use their speed and agility and dive towards the eagles over and over, whether the eagle is in flight or perched on a limb. When perched, if and eagle is in the open, the osprey will continue to dive bomb over and over, like a pesky mosquito, until the eagle leaves its perch, or moves deeper into the tree with some sort of limb and leaf cover.  When both are in flight, the osprey makes a move, generally from above, and dives downward, toward the eagle. As it closes in, the eagle will flip upside down, extend its talons up and out in the direction of the attack, which causes the osprey to abort. After the immediate threat is over, the eagle continues its turn and either completes a full 360 degree, circular turn, or will flip back the way it began and do a 180 flip, then a 180 back. It is incredible to see the speed and accuracy of how fast an eagle can go from right side up to upside down ... in a split second. Some photographers capture it, but for me with my cell phone, I didn’t even try, I just watched.
All the osprey pairs in Jefferson’s Reach are sitting on eggs now, except one pair. They seem to be done constructing their nest, so it’s just a matter of days now for an egg to be laid.  Another pair has been sitting on eggs for over a week now, and their nest seems to be hovering over the river, built on the tiniest of branches. A strong southeast wind could cause real problems for them. You can see the nest in the photo to the left. 
Walter & Annie are doing wonderful. They became my favorite pair of osprey years ago when it was apparent they ‘both’ were the first osprey back from migration. Not one, but both! Usually by March 1 both would be back at the nest site instantly gathering branches. Because they arrive early year after year, this could be an indication their migration south is not as far south as others.  Many osprey migrate deep into South America. They are a constant on the river and very interesting pair. If you get a chance to check out a documentary called, Expedition Chesapeake, Walter & Annie are the osprey featured in that program. Expedition Chesapeake highlights seven different species within the Bay system, osprey being one of them.
Last but not least, I spotted Charlize the Heron in her feeding territory. She has been there the last two Sundays and I captured an interesting shot of her hoping from one piling to another. The river is alive with millions of herring and shad spawning throughout the James and its tributaries. The miner bees will be emerging soon and the many bird species are searching for nest sites, building nests, laying eggs, incubating eggs or feeding young, all trying to survive, facing daily challenges and move forward towards success of their specie.  Sounds kinda familiar .. until next week.
Capt. Mike

Eagle Update, April 20, 2020

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Mon, 04/20/2020 - 17:22

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


Eagle Update, April 13, 2020

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Mon, 04/13/2020 - 13:48

Bald Eagle Update, April 13, 2020.

With the current state of Covid-19 interrupting the world, and Discover the James' Bald Eagle Tours coming to a screeching halt, the present seems like a good time to write. No more excuses. It's been far too long since I had (made) the time to write about the resident eagles of Jefferson's Reach, a stretch of river on the James that holds eight pair of eagles. To be specific, Jefferson's Reach starts at a large sycamore tree on Hatcher Island and ends at a large sycamore tree on the east side of Jones Neck. They are both the tallest trees in their respective areas and each marks the edge of an eagle's territory.

I motored my pontoon boat, the Discovery Barge II, slowly through Jefferson’s Reach, seeking out each pair and watching their flight patterns, activity and actions hoping to determine the success or failure of each pair's breeding season.  For some, it was easy to see their success, or failure, while others were a little harder to determine. Given the incredible comeback of the bald eagle on the James River and how much harder it is to have successful breeding seasons year after year, I’d say the eagles of Jefferson’s Reach are right on par. The abundance of mature bald eagles looking for territories is making it increasingly difficult for the current resident eagles as these ‘intruders’ or ‘interlopers’ are causing problems by either crushing eggs, killing chicks, or keeping the adults away from the nest too long for other forces to that cause failure such as storms and cold temperatures. In the photo above and to the right, Barb & Treble's two offspring perch on the nest. They are hard to see, so look close.

The resident eagle's eggs hatch in March which coincides with the return of the anadromous fish that migrate into the James. Anadromous fish live in saltwater and migrate up into freshwater rivers to spawn. Hickory shad, American shad, herring and alewife fill the river system by the millions and the food supply for many birds is multiplied. While eagles are scavengers and will eat just about anything, their primary diet is fish. Another welcoming change (for osprey lover’s as well as the eagles) at this time is the return of the migratory osprey who begin to arrive in early March. By now, mid-April, all the osprey are back at their nesting sites, some with full nests built high and strong on channel markers and trees along the river bank.  Many, but not all osprey, are already incubating eggs. April is a time when the osprey and bald eagles are at full odds.  The eagles are keenly watching the osprey hunting and will leave their perch as soon as an osprey is successful in their hunt. An eagle will chase down an osprey with a fish and one of three things will happen.  The eagle will take the fish, the osprey will get away with the fish, or the osprey will drop the fish and neither will feed on it. Additionally, the osprey are hyper territorial since they have just laid their eggs, meaning the interactions between these two raptors is at the highest right now and will probably remain this way for weeks to come.  

Out of the eight pair of eagles in Jefferson’s Reach, two pair have failed.  Nesting success or failure is noted by the overall activity of each pair in their territory and whether or not they are returning to the nest over long periods of observation.  Dark Beak, a resident male, seemed poised to finally have a successful breeding season in 2020 after three years of fighting to keep his small territory viable. Last spring he lost his mate, butd last fall, Dark Beak accepted a new mate after an amazing two-week courtship. A female came into his territory and ultimately won the trust (and heart) of Dark Beak as the two spent time in separate trees, each day becoming closer until  they were both perched side by side, wings touching, on a large sycamore branch.  Soon after their courtship they built a nest, and on December 24, his new mate was named Merry in the spirit of the season.  Today, Dark Beak & Merry are inseparable as seen in the photo above.

During Dark Beak's three years on the river, he never built a nest until after accepting Merry last fall. They started construction of a nest at the end of November, 2019, but gave up on that initial location and began construction of another nest on a nearby tree. Neither location seemed like the best choice as both were on the outer branches of a large tree. Not ideal, but some eagles choose to build on the outer branches as opposed to constructing closer to the trunk and the connecting larger, more stable branches.

As I motored my pontoon boat around the bend, and into their territory, I peered towards the thin neck of land between the river and swamp, hoping to see a white head sticking out from the nest. I kept looking but the nest was gone. It had fallen completely out of the tree. In mid March, Dark Beak & Merry had not yet laid eggs and I was beginning to wonder if they would at all this year.  Perhaps they did, but it would have been on the later side of laying. Either way, they will not be raising eaglets this year ….  hopefully 2021 will be their inaugural success. As of April 12, 2020, they had not started construction of another nest, or at least not within the visible range of the river.

The other pair showing signs of a failed breeding season is Varina & Enon, another incredible pair of resident eagles. The female, Varina, has been solid like a rock over the course of the eleven years I've been observig her.  Enon is her second mate over that time. Both have been perching far from their nest, with no return trips to the nest, indicating a failed breeding season. On my last three visits to see them, over the last month, they did not have activity at the nest and for the second year in a row, it seems they did not even lay eggs.  2019 & 2020 marks the first time this pair had two successive failed seasons. Three years ago, in 2018, Varina & Enon were the only pair in Jefferson’s Reach to have a successful breeding season and they fledged two eagles from the nest.   Every other pair of resident eagles in Jefferson’s Reach failed, creating the worst breeding season of the eleven I’ve observed. 2018’s poor reproduction was more than likely due to three winter storms that tore through the area at the time the eagle’s eggs were hatching, a most critical and venerable time for the hatchlings. Varina & Enon’s nest is big and old and is still nestled in a pine tree about a half-mile from the river. 

Four pair of eagles showing definite signs of success are Bandit & Trey, Henry & Duchess, Barb & Treble and Baba & PopsThey are all making forays back to their nests at regular intervals, and most of the time, only one eagle is present on the river (meaning the other is probably on the nest).  Occasionally both eagles are perched on the river hunting for food, while keeping a sharp eye out for intruders as well as an eye on their nests. I was surprised at the size of the eaglets on the nest. They were bigger than I would have thought, but then again, they grow so fast. In the photo, you can see the size of the Barb & Treble’s eaglets as they rise high on the nest. The only other nest where I could observe eaglets on the nest were the newest pair of eagles, Henry & Duchess. I believe they have two offspring on the nest as well. In the photo to the left, Henry was flying back to the nest with a small shad but decided to eat it in flight!

I could go on and on writing about each pair of these eagles, but I think it’s safe to say that the most popular bird on the river is Bandit, and I’ve had a couple requests for an update on her.  Talk about a tough eagle … Bandit has been through so many life trials and tribulations that her story could fill a book (hmmm .. interesting idea). I am very happy to report that Bandit is busy at her nest with her mate Trey. The two have consistently been on the nest, and the hopes of Bandit having a third successful breeding season (out of eleven) is something so many have been waiting for. It’s been three long years since her last successful breeding season (her second) and during that time she became better at being an “eagle parent”. Her first successful breeding season, in 2015, wasn’t because of her performance, it was all Trey. He literally did all the work … from incubating to feeding. Bandit, surprisingly did not sit on the nest, did not feed the chick and did not teach it anything after fledging. In fact, there is not one photograph or observation of her with her offspring.  Two years later, in 2017, Bandit & Trey raised two eaglets. Bandit incubated and fed her offspring everyday. Once the eaglets left the nest, Bandit did not participate in ‘educational’ activity with the fledglings outside of the nest. Each successful year she had developed as a parent, and hopefully this year, during her third successful breeding season, she will be able to advance her parenting skills to another level and teach her young how to eat while perched on a branch, or how to steal a fish from an osprey. And most importantly how to pluck a fish from the river.  
To round out the eight pair in Jefferson’s Reach, Virginia & James and Rebecca & John did not show signs of failure, or show signs of definite success either. From my last couple of observations, both seem to have activity at the nest, but neither pair is making it a priority to get back to the nest. Not that this behavior means anything at all, but personally, I like to see straight line flights to and from the nest.  If I were to guess, I’d say both are still raising young and for now, that would make a 75% success rate within Jefferson’s Reach.
I love this area and will continue sharing it with people as long as I can remain on the river. Jefferson’s Reach is about everything that has ever happened in that six miles of river, but it’s also about love and respect for each other and every living thing.  Jefferson’s Reach has changed quite a bit over the years. Eleven years ago there were five pair of eagles and now there are eight. The number of osprey who nest here continues to grow. Small rookeries of great blue heron continuously pop up, songbirds sing, and the deer, turkey and other denizens are always present, just sometimes unseen. To learn why this stretch is named, “Jefferson’s Reach", check out this story from October 2011 …  click here.
Thanks for checking in, and special thanks to Lynda Richardson, my wife, for her wonderful images from yesterday's outing. We'll head back out on the river next Sunday and have a breeding update (with photos) by Monday evening. So for now, take care and stay healthy and safe.
Capt. Mike