Just after 8:30 on Saturday March 9 the old survey crew of Mitchell Byrd and Bryan Watts along with pilot Captain Fuzzzo Shermer taxied down the runway to the east and took off out over College Creek to start the 58th annual survey of breeding eagles in Virginia. The initial survey conducted in March checks the status of known nests and searches for new nests that have been built since the fall to keep track of the population over time. On this day, the team would fly for more than 8 hours along the James River mapping and inspecting more than 100 nests. On Sunday the team would check another 100 nests along the James including more than 20 new nests. The population has come a long way since the late 1970s when no pairs were known to nest along the river.
On this day the team would observe the day to day lives of eagles around their nests – adults incubating eggs, eggs just in the process of hatching, females feeding muskrat, shad, and other prey to chicks, nests blown out of trees during the recent wind storm, raccoons sleeping or great horned owls brooding their own young in nests. In some nests, fish waiting to be eaten were stacked like cord wood while other nests were empty. Some nests were built in towering pines or cypress while others were in spindly hardwoods. The survey has recorded more than 25,000 nest checks in the lower Chesapeake Bay since the late 1950s and is responsible for most of what we know about this unique population.
The 2013 survey represents the 37th survey for Byrd and the 22nd survey for Watts. The pair has teamed up for more than 3,000 hours of aerial surveys and seen the population rise from the ashes to heights beyond what either could have imagined.
Written by Bryan Watts
March 12, 2013