Interesting Observations with Bandit

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Sat, 09/24/2011 - 17:20


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.


A Gift from Jefferson's Reach on September 11, 2011

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Thu, 09/15/2011 - 11:12
September 11, 2011. For all of America, this is a solemn day indeed. I spoke with many friends who, in their own ways, paid respect to the fallen hero’s from the horrible events of a decade ago. For me, I spent time thinking about 9/11 with an American Icon, the bald eagle. The day would prove to be quite special.
It was a reflective day for those of us on the Discovery Barge II, but became a very special one, because of a certain pair of eagles. For a few years now, I’ve been observing and learning about the resident pair of bald eagles called Varina & Enon. 

I can now tell which one is Varina (female) and Enon (male). I finally found their nest this spring, which is now concealed by foliage. I have seen them communicate visually with one another (more on this in another blog post). One habit they have, which I have always wondered about is “Why this pair of eagles is sighted on the river more than any other of the Jefferson’s Reach eagles?”
Varina & Enon are generally perched in the treetops along the riverbanks east of the 295, Varina-Enon bridge. They are the most reliable pair of eagles in the area in regard to being sighted and are almost always visible from the river. I was curious as to why they were so often sighted so I looked at maps and Google Earth. I noticed something interesting … all the other pairs of eagles have an inland body of water to hunt within their territory as well as the James River. Whether it’s a pond, or a large area of land that was quarried for sand and gravel and is now filled with water. Or both, they all had 'other' bodies of water within their territories. Varina & Enon do not have any other body of water remotely close to what their territory may be. Not even a small pond, which means the James River is not just their primary “water based” hunting ground, it’s their only hunting ground. That would explain why they are seen on almost every bald eagle tour.
So why was September 11, 2011 so special? It goes back to late winter of 2010. In February and March of 2010, it was obvious Varina & Enon didn’t have any eggs on the nest, as both birds were along the river the entire time one of them should have been on the nest incubating eggs. This year, in February and March of 2011, only one bird was visible, meaning there was one on the nest, incubating. When Enon would catch a fish, he would fly back to the nest, bringing food for his eaglet(s). These habits indicated they were in the process of raising young.

By mid-June the eaglets of Jefferson’s Reach fledge, or fly for the first time. I saw the eaglets of three other pair flying around by mid-June. While viewing Varina & Enon in mid-June of this year, I saw an immature bird fly out from the tree line, over the river, and quickly headed back over the tree line, out of sight. That was the only sighting of their eaglet for almost three months. 

Over the summer, Varina & Enon, perched in their normal spots but would face away from the river, looking to the southwest instead of looking towards the river, hunting for food. I had always assumed they faced southwest to watch their eaglet, trying to get it to come out to the river. Months passed and they continued to look southwest from the treetops. About the first week of September, they had turned and started to face the river on a regular basis, and it was at that point I assumed something must have happened to their eaglet, that it had not made it. After all, it made no appearances along the river, while the other eaglets of Jefferson’s Reach were out on a regular basis, learning to catch fish.
On September 11, 2011 something unexpected and wonderful happened. Varina & Enon were gliding, circling a dead shad on the river’s surface. They’d dive down towards it, swooping within inches, but never grabbing it. They kept swooping down again and again. Granted, these two birds are called the “dancers” of Jefferson’s Reach, because they seem to love to fly around together close to the water, but in this case they were deliberately not grabbing the shad. While hypothesizing about why they were acting that way, all of the sudden, a third bird flew out over the tree line. A young bird, a Jefferson’s Reach eaglet of 2011 started to fly with Varina & Enon. The parents each dove once more towards the shad when the eaglet began to glide in circles, looking down at the shad, tucked it’s wings a bit, dropped with talons exposed and slid right in for a perfect “snatch” of the dead gizzard shad. Without too much effort, the eaglet flew across the river, north, towards Varina Plantation, with the shad pierced in its talons, landing in a tree to eat its meal. Varina & Enon’s little eaglet was alive and well.
Wow, what a memorable moment that was. To go from thinking Varina & Enon had somehow lost their chick to seeing it out of nowhere and having wonderful photographers on board to capture the moment on film (or should I say 'media card'). Once realizing a new bird was found in Jefferson’s Reach, the guests onboard had the opportunity to name the bird. It didn’t take long before they decided to call the eaglet “Liberty” in memory of the day. I don’t think anything any better could have happened on the river that day. Thank you Varina, Enon & Liberty! I can’t wait to see you this weekend. 

-- Capt. Mike 


The Photo's Stories?  Top Left & Top Right:  Just about the moment we were realizing the bird we were viewing was Varina & Enon's eaglet, John Lewis started to photograph her.  Here are two wonderful images of Liberty.  Enjoy.  -- Photos by John Lewis.  To see more of John's work, click here.

Bottom Left:  A three quarter moon in the background glows in the early evening sun as Varina, the proud parent of Liberty, perches high on the branch of dead tree.  Notice how she is facing southwest, but she turned for the photo.  Good girl.  -- Photo by Lynda Richardson.  To see more of Lynda's work, click here.

 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 

Sturgeon & Eagles

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Fri, 08/19/2011 - 09:22

August 19, 2011.  Phenomenon is not the right word, but it's close.  An event has taken place on the James River for eons, and over the last couple of years has regained a lot of attention.  Beginning in late August and lasting into October, one of the oldest fish species in the world returns to the James River, while in almost all of their historic habitats, there are none returning or present.  Universities and federal government agencies are paying close attention to this, and so am I.

Of course, we are talking about Atlantic Sturgeon.

Sturgeon in the James River have a long history ... more than we will ever know.  Over 400 years ago, during early colonial days sturgeon were caught and eaten, saving some colonists from starvation. At that time, these fish grew to 14 feet or more, and weighed over 800 pounds. Once established as a food source, catch rates kept climbing and overfishing lasted into the 1890's, when the harvest peaked.  By 1900 the population crashed and continued to decline because of pollution and habitat destruction.  

But today they are noticeably back.  In fact they are back right now and in the process of possibly spawning (researchers are trying to find out if, in fact, they are spawning this time of year. Historically they have been springtime spawners).  While they are in the river, sturgeon offer incredible visual acrobatics, called "breaching"  When a sturgeon breaches it rockets out of the water, leaping into the air and then crashing down on its side, back into the river.  You generally hear more than you see, but with a slow cruise along certain parts of the river your chances are pretty good you will see one or two.  When you see a sturgeon breach, it looks like a 10 foot section of telephone pole comes out of the river and is dropped on it's side from 15 feet in the air.   

There are plenty of theories why sturgeon breach, but scientists don't really know why the do it.  But they do know one thing ... when a sturgeon breaches .... it's amazing.  Smaller than their historic sizes, Atlantic sturgeon today can grow to nine feet and weigh over 300 pounds. Most fish are males in the five to six foot range, and weigh around 100 pounds.

Like bald eagles, this species has given researchers, and river lovers something to talk about and investigate.  There is a great amount of research going on up and down the East Coast on sturgeon and Matt Balazik, a biologist and sturgeon researcher, from Virginia Commonwealth University, continues to be a leader in this field.  He recently began his late summer/fall river work with Atlantic Sturgeon and will now spend many days a week out on the James, from the City of Richmond well down below Hopewell searching for and capturing as many as possible, to weigh, tag and release.  VCU has been a leader in getting research dollars funneled towards restoration of Atlantic Sturgeon on the James River.  

For a short time, Discover The James will offer Sturgeon & Eagle Tours on every bald eagle tour taken.  There is about a mile stretch of river in Jefferson's Reach that Atlantic Stureon have been populating during this possible spawning season.  Why are they there?  Well there are theories, and I have one that Matt shared with me, but you'll have to come out on the boat to find out.  --Capt. Mike

The Photos Stories?  Top Right:  Here Matt Balazik is holding one of the biggest Atlantic sturgeon he'd ever seen.  More than likely this is a female because of her size.  Estimated at over 300 pounds and more than seven feet long, this sturgeon was released safely back into the James to continue on her way.  Photo credit:  VCU/Center for Environmental Studies.

Bottom Left:  August 18, 2011 ... the first sturgeon capture of the late summer/fall season.  I spoke with Matt soon after this first fish was caught and he mentioned that two of the sturgeon he had caught and tagged last year have been recorded passing by Jamestown, verified returns to the James River.  This data is received via a combination of a tag on the fish, a receiver on a channel marker buoy in the river, and this data transferred via satellite in real time.  Good stuff.  Photo credit:  VCU/Center for Environmental Studies.

For more into on VCU's Atlantic Sturgeon Research, click here.

For a short story on one of the most interesting events I have ever seen on the James, click here.


What I Learned at Fish Camp Last Week ...

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Tue, 08/16/2011 - 15:52


August 16, 2011.  For me, working with kids who want to become responsible anglers is as good as it gets.  Teaching them the finer points of fishing while trying to relate how everything you catch, see, hear and touch on the river is a part of the whole ecosystem.  Everything is intertwined, and every minnow, insect and each leaf along the riverbank has its place.  They are all parts of the whole, including us as fishermen.  It’s the “There’s more to fishing than just catching fish” approach without saying it. 
After running fishing programs for VCU’s Summer Discovery over the last eight summers, I decided it was time to try my own.  Last week I ran my first fishing camp, and thoroughly enjoyed a week of five eager kids foaming at the mouth to get out onto the water every morning.  It was a challenge to consistently work in a little education, but there were many opportunities.  Mostly in the van, while riding to our destination, but also in the field and on the water. 
We caught over 200 fish on the second day, which is an incredible number, but one opportunity missed was taking more time to stop fishing and tune into our human senses, helping us become more aware and appreciative of where we were.  At one point during that 200 fish day we did take five minutes to look at rocks on a bar in the middle of the river, seeing who could find the most interesting one.  I considered that one of the highlights of the day and still have the four rocks that were picked … all very cool in their own way. 
I should have taken ten more minutes that day to get the kids to just watch and listen to the environment.  It easy enough to point things out, like a hatch of insects, or a green heron perched on a rock, fishing.  Or how the water flowing around a boulder, if you stare at it long enough, makes the rock look like it is moving upriver.  But giving the kids more time to take a deeper look at their surroundings would have added to their 200 fish day.  
Reflecting on last week’s experience, I realize taking time out to ‘listen’ to the sounds of nature, while fishing would have also been well worth the effort.  Sure, we heard things, but did we listen? Fishing is complex and you need to focus on the sounds around you to become more aware.  Imagine pausing in the stream for a few minutes, tucking your fishing rod under your arm.   The dull, constant hum of insects in the woods quickly becomes apparent.  Then a half a dozen or more different songbirds are heard chirping and singing in surround sound and a cicada suddenly, clumsily flies by.  You hear the recognizable swirl of a fish in the water upriver.  You turn and see the ripples. 
While deciding whether to make a cast toward the rising fish a piliated woodpecker flies above you with its unmistakable jungle-like call.  You start to realize just how much is going on around you and just feet away a cardinal chirps loudly.   A woodpecker, perhaps the one you just heard call, starts to thump on a nearby dead tree.  Yeah, I think taking some time to just listen in on nature is going to be a regular part of helping kids become better anglers. 
I’ve been sitting at the river since a little before 7 this morning, I think it's time to stop writing and just listen for a while.   --Capt. Mike
The Photos Stories? Top Right:  One of the days included a special trip to the upper James River.  Through private property, we were able to trek around an island while fishing for smallmouth bass and sunfish.  We also flipped a few rocks, caught and identified a few critters like hellgrammites, damselfly larvae and mayfly larvae.  --Photo by Bob Jones Jr.
Middle Left:  One of the days during the fishing camp was a trip out onto the tidal James River on the Discovery Barge II, my pontoon boat.  We launched from the Richmond Yacht Basin and cruised downriver towards Presquile Island and fished downed trees along the shoreline to catch a few blue catfish and one channel cat.  We also were able to see lots of bald eagles, blue heron and osprey.  In this image, "L'il Fish" holds a little catfish, which ended up being half of our lunch!  One of the fun things during the week is the naming of nicknames.  Everyone gets one, including me (Cappy).  --Photo by Capt. Mike
Bottom Right:  Silver, so named for the first crappie being caught during the week is shown holding one of the first fish of the 200-fish day.  Silver is proudly displaying one of the many bluegill caught that day.  --Photo by Capt. Mike