Fish gripped in talons, a bald eagle returns to its nest on a New River Gorge island to feed its young in this 2012 photo. Photos courtesy of Sharyn Ogden
Some of the 98 observers taking part in this year's Southern West Virginia Winter Eagle Survey scan the sky above Bluestone Lake. Volunteers could be found at 21 observation points along the New, Bluestone and Greenbrier rivers, as well as Bluestone and Moncove lakes during Saturday's eagle watch.
HINTON, W.Va. -- A record crowd of observers spotted a record number of eagles during record warm temperatures in Saturday's Southern West Virginia Winter Eagle Survey in the Hinton area.
Nearly 100 volunteer observers scanned the skies, treetops and shorelines from 12 vistas along the New River and Bluestone Lake, four sites along the Greenbrier River, three sites along the Bluestone River and single viewing areas along Monroe County's Indian Creek and Moncove Lake.
When they gathered at the end of the day to compare notes on their sightings and the times at which they occurred, it was determined that 27 bald eagles, five golden eagles and two eagles of undetermined species had been spotted. It was, by far, the largest number of eagles seen since the winter surveys began eight years ago, nearly doubling last January's previous record tally of 14.
The big spike in eagle sightings can be attributed to a combination of "a growing population of eagles in the area, and having so many more eyes out there watching for them this year," said Pipestem Resort State Park Naturalist Jim Phillips, founder and coordinator of the winter surveys.
Warm temperatures and mild weather probably played a role as well, giving the eagles more flying time and the observers better viewing conditions.
"We could hear spring peepers calling and see active honeybees and blooming dandelions," Phillips said. The temperature reached 72 degrees at the Mercer County Airport on Saturday, surpassing the previous record high for the date, set in 2005, by 4 degrees.
Phillips began holding the surveys in 2006, after he and other southern West Virginia birders began seeing eagles routinely showing up in their Christmas bird counts, and later, exhibiting nesting behavior in the vicinity of Bluestone Lake.
"The first year, we saw four bald eagles and one immature golden," he said.
Since then, the counts have steadily grown.
"With the passage of time, we're getting farther away from the impact of DDT," Phillips said, in reference to the long-banned insecticide blamed for entering the eagle's food chain and interfering with the development of viable eggs.
"And this is such a great area for eagles to live in, since they depend so much on fish and waterfowl for their food," he continued. "We have the New, Bluestone and Greenbrier rivers and Bluestone Lake," with large expanses of them preserved as state parks and wildlife management areas.
The one confirmed nesting site in the survey area lies at the south end of the New River Gorge National River, now occupied by a pair of bald eagles for the fourth consecutive year.
"We haven't seen any eggs in the nest yet this year, but there's still time," said Wendy Perrone, director of the Three Rivers Avian Center, and a long-time volunteer on the winter nesting surveys.
While some eagles migrate south or eastward to the Chesapeake Bay to spend their winters, the New River Gorge eagles remain near their nest year-round. "So far, they've never left," said Perrone.
Phillips said he suspects there are at least three additional eagle nests in the Hinton area.
In early March, a second survey will be held in an effort to find new nesting sites. Observers in canoes will scan the shorelines of Bluestone Lake and the New, Greenbrier and Bluestone rivers to find eagle nests, which are built from sticks, often used year after year, and can weigh more than a ton.
About 20 bald eagle pairs nest in West Virginia each year, mainly in the Potomac River watershed.
The 98 volunteers taking part in last weekend's survey were a blend of experienced and inexperienced birders.
"Jim did a fine job of pairing up newbies with people who have been doing these eagle surveys for years," Perrone said. "Thanks to all the people who wanted to help, we were able to cover a lot more area this year."
Reach Rick Steelhammer at email@example.com or 304-348-5169.