The bald eagle was once among the 700 species on the Endangered Species Act’s “endangered” list. This was a nationwide problem, but one area that has tracked the number of bald eagles over the years and has witnessed the fall and rise in the bald eagle population is the James River in the Chesapeake area of Virginia. While these animals were nearly extinct at one point, they have made a remarkable recovery and their numbers are now soaring.
Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology director, has worked with Mitchell Byrd in recent years to count and track bald eagles along the James River in Virginia. Byrd started teaching in 1956 and is an active conversationalist. He has been doing the annual bald eagle survey in Virginia for decades.
Now 85-years-old, Byrd is conducting his 38 annual bald eagle survey. He has seen vast changes in the bald eagle population over the years. In 1972, the eagles were in danger of extinction. They were down to just 30 pairs of mating eagles at that time. By 1975 there were none. The reason for the decline in their population was the dumping of the DDT insecticide, which damaged the eggs and ultimately killed off the adult population as well. As the harmful toxins receded from the ecosystem, it allowed for local species, including the bald eagle, to repopulate. Byrd first noticed a growth in the birds in the area in 1977, and this year the birds are flourishing.
Technology has changed the way scientists and conservationists track bald eagles. Though unavailable at the start of Byrd’s annual count, nest cameras and fitted transmitters now allow them to track the birds on a whole new level. They have learned about the behavior of the bald eagle, as well as what remains a threat to the species, namely raccoons and great horned owls.
Census flights are still a big component in the annual eagle count, however. The first flight takes place in early March. They check the nests that were previously on record and add any new nests that are under development. The second fly over occurs in late April. The purpose of this trip is to check the nests for eggs and get a count on them.
Byrd said that while flight days used to be easy because they were so few and far between, they are getting to be long days now. The population of bald eagles has grown so much that they see a nest every few seconds during parts of the flight. Remembering the days when they were near extinction, he is excited to be a part of the longer count days that involve growing numbers of nests, pairs and eggs.
The bald eagle population has soared to the point that the they are reaching capacity in the area. In 2013, they documented 205 eagles pairs and 267 newly born bald eagles. In the first flight of 2014, they counted 220 pairs, showing that the population is continuing to grow. While some note that the James River and Chesapeake Bay area has the largest concentration of bald eagles, Watts calls it “one of the greatest conservation success stories on the planet.”
By Tracy Rose