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Bay eagles' comeback can continue if humans keep their promises


We've got eagles to the side, eagles above, eagles ahead; eagles flushing like coveys of quail; eagles rampant on a forested shoreline, their snow-capped heads festooning the resplendent greens of giant cypress.

The sight seizes the spirit, lofts the soul. Raptor (bird of prey) and rapture: no wonder those words have the same Latin root.

Between midmorning and lunch, we'll count more than a hundred bald eagles, a pretty average day. This is not Alaskan wilderness. You'd have a hard time seeing as many in one place there.

We're in Virginia, on the Chesapeake Bay's third largest tributary, the James River, just downstream from Hopewell.

Hopewell, sporting smokestacks from a dozen industries, advertises itself as the "Chemical Capital of the South" -- a bit less proudly since Allied Chemical admitted a decade ago to discharging tons of Kepone there. The pesticide poisoned the river for a hundred miles, and closed fishing for years.

Another pesticide, DDT, gets most of the blame for nearly finishing eagles throughout the Chesapeake. Before the stuff was banned in the early 1970s, pairs of nesting eagles in Maryland and Virginia declined from hundreds to dozens, and reproduction among these survivors was in rapid decline.

Dr. Mitchell Byrd, who has taken us out on his weekly eagle census, says Kepone was never proven to harm the eagles. But he thinks it was no coincidence that of Virginia's rivers, only the James lost all its nesting pairs by 1972. A year later the last osprey nest on this, the lower bay's richest seafood river, went empty too.

Feeding at the apex of the food web, top predators like eagles and ospreys tend to concentrate pesticides hundreds or thousands of times more than the levels found in the water or in underwater sediments.

Dr. Byrd, a scientist who recently retired from the faculty of the College of William and Mary, has been tracking eagles and other birds of the Chesapeake for decades. His devotion goes way beyond the realm of population statistics.

For example, he can tell you, with certainty, that "there is something about a bald eagle sitting in a big old cypress that's different and better than one sitting anywhere else." And he says this piece of the James is the most important piece of waterfront for eagles anywhere in Virginia.

The first pair of post-pesticide eagles returned to the James in 1978. Now, 26 pairs nest each December. Most of the eagles we are seeing this day are migrants -- eagles from Florida, Tennessee and the Carolinas here for the summer. During the winter, this same area holds Northern eagles foraging southward.

Dr. Byrd believes there are literally "hundreds and hundreds" of eagles passing through and roosting and feeding here annually. They seem restricted mostly to about seven miles of river in the Hopewell region, less than a tenth of the fish-rich tidal portion of the James.

Why here? No human can say for certain, anymore than we know why thousands of tiny swallows mass every August just upstream, on the roof of a particular marina, preparatory to their southward migration.

Probably for the eagles it is a combination of food availability and the solitude and huge old perch trees found along the solid walls of old-growth forest lining most of the river here. Also, extensive tidal flats restrict boat traffic to mid-river, well away from the skittish eagles.

They love the splendidly timbered water's edge, Dr. Byrd says, and preserving it is the key to retaining the eagle population, both here and bay-wide.

The pesticide threat removed, eagles have rebounded magnificently, to around 300 nesting pairs along the combined shoreline of the Maryland and Virginia Chesapeake.

That comeback is justly celebrated as one of our era's most stirring environmental success stories. Never mind that our national symbol gets bad breath because it eats carrion, not just fresh fish. Never mind that eagles aren't above bullying smaller birds out of a hard-earned catch. Never mind that one of Maryland's largest eagle colonies is next to a dead-chicken dump, where the living is easy.

Comeback is real

Soaring high, wide and handsome, opportunistic and greedy; big, good-looking dudes, symbolic to the max; comeback kids, and a bit of the bully. All in all, the eagle and the nation suit one another just fine.

The comeback is real, but only partial; habitat loss began reducing the population of Chesapeake eagles long before pesticides hammered them. Though data before 1960 is sketchy, up to 800 pairs may have nested around the bay during the 1930s, compared to 300 today.

Dr. Byrd expects the population to "stabilize at 400 [pairs] or less. I don't think the habitat is left for more."

Protecting the remaining habitat will be a challenge. On the James River, most of the heavily eagled shoreline we passed in Dr. Byrd's skiff consists of huge old plantations like historic Westover.

But he estimates that less than a mile of this section is fully preserved against development.

Part of that mile is under federal protection. Along with conservation groups, Dr. Byrd was instrumental in persuading Congress to create the James River National Bald Eagle Refuge a few years ago.

The land was to be developed into 450 homesites on the water's edge.

The water's edge, otherwise known as waterfront real estate, is, of course, where humans most want to settle.

A ruinous taxation

Some counties in Virginia are adopting a ruinous taxation of all waterfront at its "highest and best use," virtually guaranteeing that such property will be forced out of farm and forest uses and developed.

Virginia's Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act in theory affords some protection to forested shoreline; but the law allows development to within 100 feet of the water's edge, and homeowners can cut trees as needed to ensure a view of the water.

Logging and farming can occur even within the 100-foot buffer.

Maryland's critical area law, while it has its share of loopholes, restricts development in much of the state's forested bay shore in a zone 1,000 feet back from the edge of the water.

The law has allowed the state, in conjunction with the federal Endangered Species Act, to have "the strongest protection for bald eagles in the U.S. that I know of," says Scott Smith, a wildlife biologist with Maryland's Department of Natural Resources.

The eagle has landed. At least one pair now nests in virtually every bay county with tidal shoreline, including 17 counties in Maryland. And reproduction is said to be healthy.

The birds will do their part, if we keep our promises about the shoreline.

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