Nesting Bald Eagles Discovered along the New River in Grayson County, VA!

You’re out weeding your garden, perhaps hiking the New River Trail, or just driving along any of our country roads when suddenly you spy a raptor overhead, stretched out like a board, a nine and a half pound bird with a wing span of 80 inches, its white head and tail sealing the identification, a graceful marriage of bird and sky. Take another look if you can, and savor the moment. Fortunately for residents of Grayson County, Virginia, this moment is becoming less rare. Many of us have been increasingly rewarded with sightings of these majestic eagles in southwest Virginia as their population continues to rebound from a low in 1971*. But not everyone, or more accurately, almost no one expects to see a bald eagle nest around here.  Yet that is exactly what happened to Ellie and Roald Kirby of Blue Ridge Discovery Center as they paddled down a quiet section of the New River one recent lazy afternoon.

Here is an account from Ellie Kirby: “On May 3rd my husband Roald and I were floating down the New River in a canoe. Roald had brought his fishing rod but he wasn’t doing any serious fishing as we drifted along. It was a still morning, and we had the river to ourselves. As we were enjoying the peaceful serenity of the water and admiring the lush greens of early spring, we saw a bird soaring above the river. At first we thought it might be a vulture, which are so common here, but then we saw its white head and knew it was a bald eagle.  Another eagle came gliding near the first. The pair didn’t fly very high, and soon one of them perched in a hillside tree. As we wondered why they didn’t fly away, we happened to glance at an island on the other side of the river and saw a big nest in the top of a large sycamore tree. Roald said, “I think there’s a bird in the nest…I can see a head!” We floated on down below the tree to get a better view and to our delight, standing there in the nest was a large, all-dark bird that had to be a baby eagle! We back-paddled a little and spent a few moments taking photos, then moved on down the river. We didn’t linger because the parents seemed perturbed at our presence, and we didn’t want to cause any more distress to this eagle family.”

From Virginia Society of Ornithology records research and conversation with wildlife officers, we have concluded that this is the first documented active bald eagle nest in Grayson County for 100 years. We have heard that bald eagles have been nesting below Byllesby and Buck Dams, and though adjacent to Grayson, that section of the New is in Carroll County. In general, the increase in bald eagle sightings in Grayson has concentrated along the New, from Fries to Mouth of Wilson. This resurgence points directly to a renewal of healthy populations and the success of conservation efforts. “The newly-discovered eagle nest in Grayson County is a welcome sign of the recovery of our Bald Eagle population, nearly lost from the widespread use of DDT decades over 50 years ago.” (Allen Boynton, formerly with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, is now employed by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission.)

The nest was discovered in a somewhat remote section of the New, with a cattle farm on one side and a steep forested slope on the other. Grayson contains a considerable amount of wilderness areas, private, state and national. Combine that with extensive cattle grazing lands, and a picture of viable habitat for the bald eagles emerges.

"Every trip outdoors holds an opportunity for discovery, but a trip down the New River always seems to be teeming with wildlife. On this particular trip, Ellie and Roald discovered a successful nesting pair of Bald Eagles! This is a landmark discovery many of us have been looking forward to for years." - Aaron Floyd, Executive Director of Blue Ridge Discovery Center

Without the parents flying around, hardly a soul would think to wonder about the presence of a nest. We are in debt to the Kirbys for their sharp observational skills. Through the hard work of birders and other outdoor enthusiasts, it was only a matter of time for this, the first definitive documentation of an active eagle nest, to come to our attention. 

The nest will be documented through the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, and the Center for Conservation Biology. The Virginia Society of Ornithology has also been contacted.

Life history in brief: bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)

Most people know about the use, and subsequent ban in 1972, of the pesticide DDT in the United States, defined by the EPA as a persistent bioaccumulative. Attention was drawn to this toxin by Rachel Carson in her seminal work, Silent Spring. One dramatic outcome of the buildup of DDT in the food chain is the thinning of bird shells, especially those of fish consumers. The thin shells cannot support the weight of incubating parents. From 1950 until 1971, the bald eagle’s population plummeted along with other bird species such as the osprey and peregrine falcon. Only after DDT was banned, and slowly over the course of 30 years, were populations returning to viable numbers and showing signs of stabilization. 
In Virginia, from 1972 to 1977 the count on breeding bald eagle pairs came to 33, with 32 restricted to the coastal area. In 1986, records show 66 breeding pairs, and by 2001, 330 pairs. There are now over 11,000 nesting pairs in the continental US and the Bald Eagle was removed from the endangered species list in 2007. They still have protection thanks to the Bald & Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940. "Amercian Eagle Day" celebrates this iconic bird on June 20th the day America added the Bald Eagle as the main image in its national emblem in 1782.
“For all the years (1986-2014 - minus 2011 when the Parkway was closed) in which the hawk count has been carried out at Mahogany Rock for the Hawk Migration Association of North America, an average of 14 Bald Eagles a year have passed along or over the Blue Ridge at the Mahogany Rock Overlook at Milepost 235 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. What is particularly significant is the change in yearly count numbers of Bald Eagles over this 28-year count period. For the first ten years of the count the average number of Bald Eagles was only 2.3 with only 0 or 1 eagles passing each year for the first six years. The yearly average for the second ten year period was 8.4. And for the latest 8 years of the count the yearly average was 18. The change in this yearly average demonstrates the dramatic recovery of Bald Eagles from the persecution of pesticides, shooting and habitat loss eagles experienced for most of the 20th century.” - Jim Keighton
(Compiler of the Mahogany Rock Hawk Count for Blue Ridge Birders and the Hawk Migration Association of North America)

In the mountains of Virginia, the bald eagle is labeled as an uncommon transient, winter visitor, rare in summer, more often seen in the fall migration event. According to the Virginia Society of Ornithology’s 4th edition of Virginia Birdlife (S Rottenborn and E Brinkley), recent breeding records have been documented at Lake Moomaw, and Rockbridge and Shenandoah counties. The Center for Conservation Biology has documented Virginia nesting pairs below Claytor Lake, along the New River in Narrows, in Burkes Garden and on the banks of Watagua Lake.
Preferred bald eagle nesting sites are situated near water, especially coastal, marshes, rivers, large lakes and spillways. They build substantial stick nests, lined with finer materials, in a tall tree with a major fork, often in an open area. Bald eagles hold the world record for the largest bird nest, with one in Florida measuring 6.1 meters deep, 2.9 meters wide, and weighing in at 2,722 kg (almost 3 tons)! A single nest can be used for 35 years. They show nest fidelity, adding to it over the course of many years. Adult pairs show similar fidelity, with well recognized long term bonding. 
At one brood/year they lay from 1 to 3 eggs, with 2 being the expected average. Partly because of the asynchronal hatch, the smaller hatchling usually perishes. It takes a full four years for the young to mature into the white head and tail molt. The bald eagle diet mainly consists of fish, but other birds and small mammals will do in a pinch. They are also known to indulge in scavenging carrion and stealing food from other birds, especially the osprey. 

- Scott Jackson-Ricketts

Virginia Birdlife (mentioned above)
Bird Watcher’s Companion, C Leahy
Essential Field Guide Companion, P Dunne
The Birder’s Handbook, P Ehrlich, D Dobkin and D Wheye