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Survey shows Rappahannock River a critical winter gathering point for American bald eagles
This juvenile bald eagle was among the birds spotted during a recent Rappahannock River survey.
Courtesy of BILL PORTLOCK/CHESAPEAKE BAY FOUNDATION
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By RUSTY DENNEN
Portions of the Rappahannock River are becoming the place in Virginia for bald eagles to hang out for the winter.
A one-day boat survey last week of a 35-mile section of the river from Mount Landing Creek above Port Royal to Tappahannock turned up 276 of the majestic birds of prey. That's only two less than the 278 spotted during a 2001 January count, which was the highest in a decade.
The numbers in Cat Point Creek, in Richmond County north of Warsaw, were surprising, says Bill Portlock, the biologist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, who conducted the survey.
"We had 71 eagles in about six miles--21 adults and 50 juveniles. It was truly stunning. And we saw a couple of nests that were not recorded before," he said. Eagles tend to return to their large nests year after year.
Eleven eagles were perched in a tree in one spot. He laughed, "At first, we thought they were vultures.
"We were seeing [eagles] steadily" the entire day, Portlock said, "in fairly regular concentrations."
Another good sign: many of them are juveniles. Of the 276 eagles spotted last Thursday, 137 were immature. There were 127 adults; the ages of 12 birds could not be determined.
Joining Portlock on the research trip in a 17-foot Boston Whaler were Jeff Cooper, nongame species biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries' Fredericksburg office; Sergio Harding, a biologist in the department's Richmond office; and Sandy Spencer, biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service stationed at the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
Using binoculars, the biologists identify the birds and mark their locations.
"Bill was piloting the boat. He and I and Sandy were spotting and Sergio was doing the mapping," Cooper said.
There were so many birds, "It was hard [for Harding] because we were yelling out birds left and right," Cooper said.
The crew also observed large flocks of Canada geese, along with some mallard and black ducks.
That, the biologists say, may help to explain the presence of so many eagles.
"There seems to be an abundance of food, fish and waterfowl, along with that sense of remoteness," Portlock said.