It happened again this morning on my way to work: On Old Plank Road in Spotsylvania, just east of Raintree subdivision, a blur of brown and white feathers landed about 20 yards off the road, probably to scavenge an animal carcass. A bald eagle. A few months ago, I was getting into my car near Todds Tavern and I happened to look up at something in the big oak tree next to my shed. Another eagle. It sat for a couple minutes, then flew away, its white head and tail feathers glistening in the morning sun. Another place they seem to favor is the strech of river around Fredericksburg’s City Dock. At brief lunch outings from the paper, I’ve seen them soaring high above the river, or sitting in trees along the bank.
I mention this because bald eagle sightings are no longer that unusual in
the area. It’s a joyful sign that these majestic birds of prey, once endangered due to the lingering affects of pesticide poisoning, are making an incredible comeback. So much so, that in June 2007, they were removed from the federal list of endangered and threatened wildlife and plants. After decades of conservation efforts, bald eagles returned from a low of about 400 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states in 1963, to over 10,000 nesting pairs today.
The lower Rappahannock and Potomac rivers have contributed to that success in a big way. Those are sweet spots where they congregate this time of year to nest and to await the runs of migratory fish from the Chesapeake Bay. Biologists tell me that there are so many eagles there, that–like an avian river condo development–there’s not enough room for all of them. So they’re venturing ever farther up the tidal reaches of our two rivers.
That’s not to say everything is well: Development continues to take its toll on eagle habitat, and though some birds don’t seem to mind sharing space with people, cars and buildings, others may not be so inclined. Bald eagles continue to be protected under the regulatory predecessors of the Endangered Species Act—the 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Recovery Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1929. Other more recent statutes protect wetlands and important wildlife habitat.
Four years ago this month, I accompanied Bill Portlock, a biologist and senior educator with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, on a one-day winter eagle survey on a 35-mile stretch of the Rappahannock from Tappahannock to a spot just above Port Royal. That day, he and a colleague counted 209 eagles, fewer than they expected, because of the strong winds.