The Eagles Have Landed


In 1975 bald eagles were extinct on the James River. Today, after years of effort by naturalists and conservationists, 280 nesting couples have made the river their home. The revival of the James River eagles is one of Virginia’s great environmental success stories.

I had the good fortune to be invited by my friends Linda and Steve Nash to accompany them and their out-of-town guests on a river trip to view the eagles. I have to say, it was a peak life experience — an expedition I will remember always. I am amazed that such a wealth of wildlife is accessible to Virginians just a few miles southeast of Richmond. Hardly anyone knows about it… which may be just as well, because no good can come of dozens of tour boats cruising up and down this near-wilderness river.

Captain Mike Ostrander has been boating this stretch of the James — downstream from the fall line in Richmond and upstream from where the river widens into an arm of the Chesapeake Bay — for years. He has tracked the eagles week by week, year by year, observing their most intimate habits. He knows the birds well enough to give them names, and he spins stories of their lives — how long they have mated, whether the male or the female builds nests and cares for the young, how many eagle chicks have survived to maturity, how interlopers have intruded upon their territories, how their territorial ranges have expanded and contracted in response, and even the eccentricities in how they fly.

One cannot call the river pristine — we entered the water, after all, at a small marina near the Henricus Historical Park. The Interstate 295 bridge spans the river, and in a few places houses peek through the trees. We saw perhaps a half dozen docks and encountered three other boats over three hours or so. But the signs of civilization were few. The riverbanks are lined with trees and reeds for mile after unbroken mile. We saw sturgeon leap from the water and smaller fish break the surface and flop around. We saw white ospreys, snowy egrets, blue herons, and, far overhead, flights of honking geese. And, of course, we saw the magnificent gold-beaked, white-maned bald eagles.

The eagles perch atop the tallest trees and scan the river with uncanny eyes. The bird has perhaps the keenest vision of the animal kingdom — roughly four to eight times sharper than that of humans — and it misses nothing that occurs within its domain. It can spot a small fish floating on the river. We saw an eagle swoop down from its aerie, stretch out its talons, snatch the fish from the water, and settle upon the branch of a nearby tree to pick it apart.

The eagle’s magnificent plumage and noble visage inspired Americans to make it a national symbol, and we expect the bird to display the virtues we expect of human greatness. But the eagle is a scavenger, not a hunter. If you want a bird that epitomizes martial prowess, go find a hawk. Like vultures, eagles eat carrion. They might dive down and grab a fish stranded in a mud flat, but they are just as likely to steal their prey as capture it themselves.

We witnessed such a theft as we approached our dock at the end of our trip. We saw an osprey, a true hunting bird about half the size of an eagle, gracefully scoop a fish from the water and then beat its wings furiously heading upstream, presumably looking for a spot where it could eat its catch in peace. Then, out of nowhere, an eagle descended from the sky in fast pursuit. The osprey dodged and waved, but it could not evade the larger, faster bird. At last the osprey dropped the fish into the water, yielding its prey to the eagle.

Poor osprey, we thought as we watched transfixed. Shortly after, the osprey spotted another fish. The bird descended, snatched the fish from the water, and headed upstream again. This time, the first eagle’s mate plunged from the sky and took after the poor osprey. The smaller bird careened around but could not shake the eagle. It dropped the fish, and the second eagle fed at the osprey’s expense.

The eagles, it appears, make a good living snatching the catch of ospreys. Such is the law of nature. Our human hearts sympathized with the smaller predator, but the eagles rule the river. What a tremendous experience it was to witness them in action.

If you’d like to view the eagles, visit Captain Mike’s website at DiscoverTheJames.com. (And, yeah, we got close enough to the eagle for me to take the photo atop this blog post.)

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15 responses to “The Eagles Have Landed

  1. From 1776: What a great show….

    John Adams: The eagle.
    Thomas Jefferson: The dove.
    Dr. Benjamin Franklin: The turkey.
    John Adams: The eagle.
    Thomas Jefferson: The dove.
    John Adams: The eagle!
    Thomas Jefferson: [considers] The eagle.
    Dr. Benjamin Franklin: The turkey.
    John Adams: The eagle is a majestic bird!
    Dr. Benjamin Franklin: The eagle is a scavenger, a thief and coward. A symbol of over ten centuries of European mischief.
    John Adams: [confused] The turkey?
    Dr. Benjamin Franklin: A truly noble bird. Native American, a source of sustenance to our original settlers, and an incredibly brave fellow who wouldn’t flinch from attacking a whole regiment of Englishmen single-handedly! Therefore, the national bird of America is going to be…
    John Adams: [insistently] The eagle!
    Dr. Benjamin Franklin: The eagle.

  2. re: ” In 1975 bald eagles were extinct on the James River. Today, after years of effort by naturalists and conservationists, 280 nesting couples have made the river their home. The revival of the James River eagles is one of Virginia’s great environmental success stories.”

    To what do we owe the revival of the eagles?

    If you talk to organizations like Reason – you get things like this:

    DDT, Eggshells, and Me
    Cracking open the facts on birds and banned pesticides
    Ronald Bailey | January 7, 2004

    and this:

    ” DDT: A Case Study in Scientific Fraud 83 Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons Volume 9 Number 3 Fall 2004

    ” The most common examples of fraud in the United States appear to be environmental, including acid rain, ozone holes,carbon dioxide, ultraviolet radiation, global cooling, globalwarming, endangered species, and pesticides. This article willprimarily concern the last, especially DDT.”

    ” Bald Eagle-DDT Myth Still Flying High | Fox News
    http://www.foxnews.com/story/2006/07/06/bald-eagle-ddt-myth-still-flying-high.html
    Jul 6, 2006 – The thin eggs dramatically reduced the chances of eaglets surviving to adulthood. … bald eagles – the AP underplayed the significance of hunting and human … birds) and reported no adverse effects caused by DDT or its residues. … that DDT residues in bird egg shells were not correlated with thinning.”

    It appears that many Conservatives and Libertarians do not agree that the DDT ban is responsible for the recovery – that it’s a “fraud” and in fact , as we speak the Trump Administration is in the process of changing the regulations for toxics… including Mercury.

    So I’m curious as to what Jim B ascribes to the recovery of the eagles as it appears that Conservatives and Libertarians are no longer agreeing with the DDT theory.

    • I’m not qualified to answer your question. I can tell you that Captain Mike attributed the eagle come-back in part to the DDT ban and to cleaner waters that allowed a recovery of the fish populations upon which the eagles feed.

      • re: “not qualified”.. that’s an impressive dodge given the fact that you DO HAVE a lot of opinions on a wide variety of things that you are “not qualified”. eh?

        geeze guy… got an opinion?

      • Let’s put it this way: I haven’t researched the DDT issue, so I don’t have an opinion that is remotely informed. I prefer to keep my mouth shut on matters of which I know nothing.

    • From a Fish and Wildlife Service web page: “Habitat destruction and degradation, illegal shooting, and the contamination of its food source, largely as a consequence of DDT, decimated the eagle population. Habitat protection afforded by the Endangered Species Act, the federal government’s banning of DDT, and conservation actions taken by the American public have helped bald eagles make a remarkable recovery.” It is never one thing. Plus it also notes that the DDT went after the food supply..

      Not sure which I inhaled more of during my childhood – mom’s cigarette smoke or the DDT sprayed so widely in the summers.

    • Hare for me to imagine how something can be extinct on a river. Isn’t that like saying, “For a couple of hours last night deer were extinct on my lawn”?

  3. …also the Osprey (the fish Hawk) is doing a lot better, I believe.
    Environmental stewardship is important, but complex. If there is an equivlalent to DDT these days (for bees, say), it is of secondary or tertiary importance to fossil fuel CO2 and methane emissions, and and plastic straws, according to the public message from modern day U.S. environmentalists.

    • There are more ospreys than mosquitoes on the Chesapeake Bay these days. Every buoy, every nesting platform has ospreys. The migrate to South America for the winter but they seem to be doing fine and dandy, at least in my very unscientific view.

  4. I too remember the clouds of DDT behind the trucks spaying it in the streets of Galveston Texas but let me also point out that many other bird species including Brown Pelicans and Peregrine Falcons over a wide range geographically – i.e. not just limited to rivers.. but also the coasts, wetlands, and inland. Even sparrowhawks were affected.

    But the important point here when celebrating the return of the Eagles is also being able to ascribe to the things that almost wiped them out – especially if there is political disagreement and a considerable number of folks on the right – believe that DDT was not the cause and they want to remove the ban.

    So .. for those of us who celebrate the Eagles – how do we feel about bringing back DDT especially those among us who say they are Conservatives and Libertarians? It’s a serious question. Aren’t we ducking the issue when we say we really don’t know or that “other” things were more responsible for the declines?

    come on folks.. step up here.

    • I have no idea and do not care but want all those decisions made on the scientific evidence. Once liberals and alarmists (since you started the name calling) have reached their conclusions they lose interest in experiment and evidence. If DDT was really killing off the birds then leave it on the banned list. That is a proposition I’m sure lends itself to real experiment and I bet its been done often.

    • I believe Rachel Carson was not orginally asking for a total DDT ban but much more cautious useage. So the question would be if there is a need that could be justified…not aware of anything, but mosquitos in third world countries with malaria is often cited as a problem.

  5. One of my brothers has had a lake home in Northern Minnesota outside Duluth. There’s been bald eagle nests around the lake as long as he’s owned the property.

  6. Throwing food to wild animals to entertain your clients is not cool. Let wild things be wild.

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