Wings Over the James 

Three decades ago, bald eagles were all but extinct on the James River. Now America's symbolic bird seems to have found a new home.

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THE DISCOVERY Barge II looks comfortably lived in. Skipper Mike Ostrander named his 34-foot pontoon boat after the original foraging vessel of English explorer Capt. John Smith, and there's nothing fancy about it. A wooden board helps to keep out air drafts, the handle of an Igloo cooler filled with dead shad is ingeniously hooked around a net pole. But Ostrander uses this unassuming boat, docked at the Deep Bottom landing near Varina, to take fishermen and sightseers to a part of the James River that's unlike any other.

The man at the helm casts an interesting figure. Bearded and bespectacled with a baseball cap, Ostrander offsets the casual sailor look with a large seashell necklace. He grew up in Dale City and got an art degree from Old Dominion University. “But this is like my art now,” says the man known as Capt. Mike, starting up the motor on a February morning. It's the first pleasant Sunday in a hard winter and the bald eagles are waiting.

When the boat embarks from the Richmond Yacht Basin, a blue heron soars over the horizon above Henricus Historical Park, scoping out the available buffet options on top of the water. The fishing opportunities are plentiful here, the captain says: striper, smallmouth bass and especially catfish. As if on cue, a fisherman in a small boat nearby wrestles with something stubborn on the other end of his reel. It turns out to be a 40-pound bottom feeder. “Catfish filet,” the angler yells in triumph, holding out his prize.

 

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“You don't have to be a rocket scientist to spot an eagle,” says Danny Jefferson of the Chickahominy Tribal Council. “The dude has a 6-foot wingspan so he needs to be somewhere where he can get those wings out immediately to fly. … he can't fly in tight. You've got to look in places where he's got clearance. You can't put a 747 on a runway made for a little two-seater Cub.”

Lately, Ostrander's been spending less time leading patrons to prime catfish and more time connecting them with the growing bald eagle population. “There are some eagles I'm starting to get to know, let's put it that way,” he says, grinning, while he scours a thicket of bare trees and slows the motor to a crawl.

Bald eagles are the only eagle indigenous to the United States and arguably one of the most impressive creatures you'll ever see up close. For that reason and others, the bird (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) became the symbol for America early in the nation's development. With a signature white head, and a wingspan of 6 to 7 feet, bald eagles can fly up to speeds of 35 to 40 mph. They seem to miss nothing, outfitted with eyes that can focus on prey from a hundred yards away. Eagles are exceptionally strong, able to lift and carry up to four pounds. Ostrander has seen firsthand how they gather branches for their nests. They don't forage on the ground — they break them off trees in midflight.

Thirty years ago, these symbolic birds were all but extinct on the James River. Now they're making a stunning comeback in Richmond's backyard — in numbers that are even startling the conservationists.

Ostrander's Discover the James cruise is one of the few ways to get a close look at what's happening with these eagles. He offers three experiences: a general tour of bald eagle nests, a longer version designed for photographers and a tour that blends history with a journey down parts of the Capt. John Smith Historic Water Trail. Ostrander's tours have been offered through the James River Association and Chesterfield County's Parks and Recreation Department; Henrico just started working with him.

Only minutes into our trip, Ostrander locates the home of a couple of nesting matures he has named Smokey and Bandit (“Bandit, the male, had a tracking band on him,” he says. “That's how he got his name, so of course the female became Smokey.”). Another pair he points out have been given the nicknames of his grandparents, Pops and Bubba.  

When the motor stops, you can't help but notice the striking stillness of this area, a silence punctuated only by the honking of waterfowl and the swooshing sound of cars crossing the nearby Varina-Enon Bridge. “There's no leaves right now so this is the time to see them,” Ostrander says of the visibility.

Soon a familiar flying profile is spotted climbing the air above a group of tall oaks. A mature bald eagle lands on a branch, higher than high, and looks out with a puffed chest — he might as well be posing for a new presidential seal.

“Let's drop him a fish,” Ostrander says. He retrieves a shad carcass, tosses it 20 feet, and starts the boat's Evenrude 90 motor to a sputtering backward trot. While the boat backs away, the eagle makes his move.

The bird's approach from the tall perch is a sudden and dramatic drop that allows the eagle to unfold its expansive wingspan. It freefalls, catches itself in midair and circles over the floating fish, showing off every inch of its brown and white plumage before launching almost parallel to the water into a floating skim, scooping up the dish in a nonchalant stride before angling around and flapping for the same tall trees it launched from.

“I call it his landing gear, you know,” Danny Jefferson says later, when hearing about the eye-popping maneuver. “Yeah, man. It is pure grace.”

Jefferson, a member of the Chickahominy Indian Tribal Council, and a lifelong birdwatcher, met Ostrander through the John Smith Water Trail tour. “Mike is doing a great job of helping people discover the eagles,” Jefferson says. “Those tours are very informative and it's almost a guarantee that you are going to see something.”

Up in the tree, the feasting eagle is cautious. He eats and then looks around over his shoulder, offering his hooked beak profile. The event had lasted seconds but time seemed to freeze. “You know you are living life the right way when you see that,” Ostrander says.


 

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The tidal fresh region of the James River and the other Chesapeake tributaries — the Rappahannock and the Potomac and points farther up the bay — are focal areas for bald eagles, says Bryan Watts of the Center for Conservation Biology.  “Pretty much between Williamsburg and Richmond is the stronghold.”

DR. BRYAN WATTS has an eagle eye on what's happening along the James. The longtime director of the Center for Conservation Biology at William and Mary — the authority on Virginia's eagle population — has a longstanding contract with the Department of Game and Fisheries to take aerial surveys of the eagles. Lately, Watts says, it's been difficult work.

“Last year we counted 600 nests. Twenty, 30 years ago, the surveys were pretty peaceful, there weren't a lot of nests to look at. But that has changed completely … this past year, we had 144 pairs on the James. It has really exploded.”

Watts is due to start flying again soon, the 55th year of taking surveys. “We do two flights each year,” he says. “One is around early March to find new nests and to check on existing nests and breeding activity. And we fly again in early May to count chicks.” He's led the Center since 1992, having worked with Dr. Mitchell Byrd, a pioneer in regional eagle research and conservation.

The lower James isn't just an important place for nesting eagles, Watts says. It's also developed into a bit of a beach town for migrating eagles from the coastal regions of Canada and New England. “We also have migrants that come up from Florida and the southeast for the summer period,” he says. “And all of these nonbreeders and our eagles sort of focus in on these lower saline regions, like just below Richmond. We have these congregations of nonbreeding birds from other populations that come here. It's thousands of birds.”

It was a different story 30 years ago. “When I was a kid you never saw eagles anywhere around here, much less near the city,” says Jefferson, of the Chickahominy Indian Tribal Council. “That was in the days of Kepone,” he says of the now-banned insecticide. “I can remember going to a YMCA camp and kayaking on a river filled with dead fish.”

 

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Mike Ostrander's tours offer a close look at what's happening with bald eagles along the James. “There are some eagles I'm starting to get to know,” he says.

“It was the only major tributary of the Chesapeake Bay that went down to zero,” Watts recalls. “There were no pairs of eagles on the James in the late '70s.” He blames the combination of DDT pesticide runoff and Kepone poisoning on the diminishment. “Kepone was mostly focused on the James. We saw similar patterns in blue herons and osprey — they went down to very low numbers during that period.” 

Now, because of a bald eagle recovery plan instituted at the bird's lowest ebb, the eagle population has increased 10 percent a year since those dark days. “The James has really come back,” Watts says. “The biggest thing we did right was to ban some of the contaminants. We also protect the birds now with refuges like Presquile [in Chesterfield and Hopewell] and the James River refuge [in Prince George]. … If you look at the density of breeding eagles on these refuge lands versus other lands, it's about four times higher.”

Bill Portlock, the senior educator for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, says that the expanse covered by Ostrander's tour — from Turkey Island to Dutch Gap — is part of an established bald eagle concentration area. “I can't think of a city that has a concentration area like this so close by,” Portlock says. “Unique is an overused word by some people. … but I'd say it is very unique.”

Portlock says the lower James has become an important place for eagles. “They prefer an undisturbed shoreline with tall trees,” he says. “They need those snag trees or super canopy trees, nice big trees that allow them to come in and out.” For the bird's diet, he says, “the James also has a high population of blue catfish, which ironically were introduced by the fish and game department as a sports fish.”

Eagles along the river can live as long as 28 years. “But it's likely as we go along, that will go up,” Watts says. His research shows that the James is attracting large numbers of young, immature eagles, not only the old white heads.

This pleases Jefferson. “When you see the young ones,” he says, “that's what's promising. Because these young ones are staying here, they are living here. When we see 15 eagles, you know, and 10 of them are young ones. That's what you want. You don't just want to see mature eagles, you want to see the young ones, you want to see them surviving on the James.”

To Jefferson, the experience of watching one never gets stale. “I'm Native American and I believe sometimes that these eagles were put there for me to see,” he says. “I can see an eagle today, I can see one tomorrow and I get the same buzz, the same rush, every time. It does something to me. … to me it's a symbol of freedom, it's a symbol of power, it fits no one nation like it fits ours. We're the big dog and he's the big dog.”
 

 

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“The eagle is the head honcho,” Danny Jefferson says. “You can look at one and see him in a tree and tell. There won't be much that will mess with him.”

NOT EVERYONE has been convinced of that. The U.S. Congress adopted the image of the bald eagle as the official symbol of America in 1782, and the stately bird of prey appears on most official crests, including the presidential seal. But not all of the founding fathers were fans. Benjamin Franklin noted the bird's “low moral character” in a letter to his daughter Sally.

“[The eagle] does not get his living honestly,” Franklin wrote. “You may have seen him perched on some dead tree, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the fishing-hawk, and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to its nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the bald eagle pursues him and takes it from him.”

Franklin went on to call the bald eagle a coward because he allowed other, smaller birds to attack him. While he never formally offered up an alternative to the bald eagle, he did throw out one interesting suggestion: “For a truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.”

Ostrander smiles at the thought. “I guess if it were up to Franklin,” he says, “we'd be taking shots of Bald Eagle.”

But the famous Philadelphian had a point. There are ugly facts to confront about the bald eagle. For one thing, it's a scavenger — its closest relative is the vulture — and will eat just about anything.

“They are pretty opportunistic feeders,” Portlock says. “Fish, when it is available, is their main food but they eat ducks, muskrats, possums, and interestingly, box turtles have been found in the nest.  It's not unusual to see road kill, like a deer carcass, dragged across the road by an eagle.”

How do they interact with their neighbors, like the blue heron and osprey? “They will take fish from an osprey,” Portlock says. “Eagles typically go on shore where there is already a fish carcass. They do fish on the surface but the osprey may be a little bit better at fishing so they may go out and harass it until the osprey drops the fish.”

Jefferson talks of the pecking order. “The eagle is the head honcho,” he says. “You can look at one and see him in a tree and tell. There won't be much that will mess with him. But an osprey is a bird that will, if an eagle gets too close to their nest. They won't really fight but they will run an eagle off.”

 

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“Let's drop him a fish,” Mike Ostrander says, preparing some bait on board the Discovery Barge II. Of late, Captain Mike has been conducting more eagle-watching trips than fishing excursions.

On one memorable occasion on the Discovery Barge II, Ostrander saw a large team of blackbirds surround an eagle and pester him in the sky, the large bird swarmed by a pecking cloud of stipple. “I'd say other birds mess with them more often,” the captain says, adding that he once saw an osprey go after an eagle. Certainly the bald eagle's relationship with the osprey — or sea hawk — is an uneasy one. Jefferson recalls seeing a young eagle chase down one of the raptor birds for a fish, an aerial dogfight that lasted several minutes and involved numerous acrobatics.

“The eagle chased him for all he was worth. That osprey can fly. … he'd take a 90-degree turn and that eagle couldn't take that 90-degree, he'd take a big swoop but he'd get right back on it. Finally the osprey let go of that fish and the eagle caught the fish in the air and went on his way.”

Jefferson doesn't think any of this diminishes the noble bird: “That's nature, man. That's the way of the world. Only the strong survive. Everybody's got a predator. But the eagle is quite capable of catching his own food too. The eagles I've seen in a confrontation with birds like the osprey were young eagles. It takes five years to get that white head, you know, and a kid's a kid. I've seen young eagles take off and fly in sync, playing and chasing each other. If you see mature eagles chasing each other, they are either fighting or loving. They aren't playing.”

As for the eagle's well-known visual acuity, Watts says: “If they could read a newspaper, they could read one at 100 feet. Their eyes are built differently than ours. Our eyes are more rounded, while their eyes have a large area in the back which allows them a finer focus at a greater distance. They use that … they are soaring up a thousand feet or more and they can search the entire long stretch of river in a short period of time.”

Mates for life, bald eagles are devoted parents and committed partners. “They both build the nest,” Jefferson says. “She does lay the eggs but they take turns sitting them. He sits on nearly as much as she does. He'll have ready-made food for her there so she doesn't have to get up. He'll have some fish there ready for her to eat. … It's definitely a team effort.”

Portlock says the eagles migrating here from the North soon will leave to go make nests, “but our eagles are in incubating posture now and will be hatching soon.”


 

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“Human development pressure is the single greatest threat to the bald eagle,” says Bill Portlock of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “We'll see if eagles adapt and learn to live around people. Right now their turnaround has been pretty dramatic.”

TWO DAYS after the outing with Ostrander, he meets us again to take an even earlier morning jaunt down the James. With dawn unfolding on the unblemished channel, our vessel passes near a fog-shrouded Henricus walking bridge while a flock of cormorants etches an arrow in the sky. The Discovery Barge II soon comes across a sprawling great blue heron rookery — dozens of nests close together in a huge tangle of trees jutting out from the river. These long-necked birds, with 70-inch wingspans, possess a peculiar blend of awkwardness and grace, and their apartment house nesting behavior is a sign that spring is coming.

A mature eagle appears not too far from this scene, sitting on a low-hanging branch and staring at a billowing industrial plant spewing exhaust just off in the distance. “What a sight,” Ostrander says. It looks a bit like the eagle is starring in an ecology commercial.

Pollution is no longer the big concern, Watts says: “The biggest problem we are having now is urban sprawl and development. We are losing eagle habitat at a fairly phenomenal rate just due to residential and urban development. If you look back through time, you'll see that shootings and [Kepone] and other factors kept the population down. We've gotten past that now but we're into a new phase where habitat loss is the biggest threat to the eagle.”

Pushing on, Ostrander's eye uncovers a pair of nesting matures that he's never seen. They're high up in a huge sycamore, huddled together on a branch shoulder to shoulder, not far from a nest. Sitting together in domestic tranquility — the female larger than the male — they seem like another married couple grabbing some morning coffee before the kids wake up.

When Jefferson hears about this, he chuckles. “Yeah,” he says, “they are taking a break. Because when those eggs hatch, two or sometimes three, it's tough feeding those little suckers. They grow fast. They eat. You've got to keep them going. When they start off, those parents will have work to do. So any little chance they've got to take a little coffee break is welcome, I'm sure.”

Ostrander asks what this loving couple should be named. I suggest Elvis and Marilyn might be appropriate and he approves. He writes down the names of the bald eagles in his little book and makes a note to get to know them.

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