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Bald Eagles on the James: A Success Story

The James River runs through it... through the City of Richmond. And just minutes downriver is an incredible opportunity to see resident bald eagles in their natural habitat. Did you know that we have an incredible conservation success story to tell? Thirty years ago there were no bald eagles on the James River. Today, over 180 pair of resident bald eagles call the James River home. And the James River is now considered to have the best bald eagle comeback in the entire North American continent!

Join me, Captain Mike Ostrander on a tidal river, pontoon boat tour into the midst of an ecosystem rich with wildlife, abundant in history and overloaded with beautiful scenery. An Eagle Tour travels through a five mile stretch of the James River known as Jefferson’s Reach, and covers five territories of resident bald eagles. And right now, migratory bald eagles are in our area.  

Since December, resident bald eagles on the James have been active getting their nests prepared for egg laying. I have been watching and learning from eight pair of resident bald eagles over the last four years. Five of these territorial, resident pair comprise the Jefferson’s Reach. Being a ‘resident’ pair means they are a mated pair of bald eagles who live in their territory on the James, 365 days a year. One territory… one pair of bald eagles… and they are very protective of their space.

In the resident eagle world, February means its definitely breeding season. By now they are done constructing and repairing their nests. Many members of the bald eagle community call these repairs… ‘nestorations.’ Both male and female are active in the nest building with the male doing most of the work. They often construct their nests in pine trees, building in the upper section of large, sturdy trees, most often around the trunk but occasionally on the outer branches. They gather nest materials such as branches, pine needles and grasses and construct or fix their nest like a jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes an eagle will snap a branch off from a nearby dead tree by grasping a limb and breaking it off in flight. The grasses and pine needles are placed in the bottom, or bowl, of the nest to soften it, creating a ‘bedding’ to help incubate their eggs. The typical width of an eagle’s nest is about six feet wide.

The only way to definitively tell if an eagle is incubating its clutch is to verify a bird is sitting on the nest. Most of the nests are not visible from the river, so relying on the number of eagles you see can give you an idea if they are sitting on eggs or not. When assessing a territory, and only one eagle is present for a number of days in a row, it’s a safe bet the mate is sitting on eggs. As of early February, just a couple territories had one bird visible at any one time, meaning they probably have laid eggs. A few territories had both eagles visible, off the nest, meaning they had yet to lay eggs.

Over the last three years, four out of the five pair of resident eagles in Jefferson’s Reach have had chicks. Only one territory has not had a successful breeding season… Bandit (female) has not hatched an egg yet. My hope remains very high that Bandit and her ‘new’ mate, the Duke, will hatch a clutch of eggs. Long story short, Bandit is an eight-year-old bald eagle and has not yet been successful in breeding and last year she changed mates, which seems unusual. Two years ago she was close, but a pair of intruding eagles came in and crushed her eggs in late February. These intruders were probably in the process of trying to take over Bandit’s territory. 

I think 2013 will be the year for Bandit and her new mate, the Duke, although they still have not laid eggs. I’ll post occasionally on my Facebook page with updates on Bandit. Here’s hoping for a successful year Bandit!

For more information on Bald Eagle Tours go to Discover the James or email me at Mike@DiscoverTheJames.com

Article by Captain Mike Ostrander 

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