Bald eagles were not anticipated to become some of the most frequent users of the newly upgraded Marmet Locks and Dam’s new fishing area when it opened in 2010.
After all, bald eagle sightings along the Kanawha River were a rarity at the time, and the modernized river navigation facility was the busiest in the Ohio River transportation system, with lights, noise and human activity custom made to keep any itinerant eagles away.
But small numbers of the majestic birds have become almost an everyday sight at the locks, where they routinely join their human counterparts in the quest for fish.
Light poles and handrails installed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as safety features for fishermen are often put to use as fish-spotting platforms by bald eagles. When a contingent of osprey, the eagles’ fish-eating cousins, returns to Marmet in March, as they have for the past several years, chances are good that the top of at least one light pole will be used to support a stick-built nest.
“I had never heard of eagles being here before, so I was surprised to see an adult bald eagle flying up the Kanawha one day in 2014,” said Belle resident Richard Gregg.
Gregg had a lifelong interest in birds when he semi-retired from work as a contract engineer in 2012. He spent many of the extra hours that move made possible regularly visiting birding observation sites he could walk, drive or paddle to and recording his sightings.
His next Kanawha River sighting took place in May 2015, when he saw another bald eagle fly past Marmet Locks. The following February, he saw two immature bald eagles spending time in the air over the locks or resting on shoreline tree limbs.
From that point forward, eagle sightings at Marmet Locks accelerated.
One or two bald eagles are now seen there on most days, according to observations recorded by Gregg and other birders. The birds can sometimes be seen diving into the Kanawha and emerging with a fish or, occasionally, a small waterfowl before flying to a tree limb for a shoreline lunch.
But much of the eagles’ time here is spent on a light tower, railing or tree, scanning river for signs of their next meal.
“When the water gets too high and muddy for them to find fish to eat, they’ll go somewhere else for a while,” said Gregg.
During the past two years, eagles have been spotted hanging out at the lock and dam complex from early January until late May or early June, then returning in September to spend the fall and winter there.
“There are two eagles that have been here for the past two years that I’m pretty sure are a pair,” Gregg said. “They spend a lot of time sitting side by side on top of a light pole or on the same sycamore branch over in DuPont City. They could be nesting somewhere around here, but so far I haven’t seen a nest.”
“We’ve been getting verbal reports about eagles at Marmet for some time — it’s a great fishing spot,” said Wendy Perrone, executive director of Three Rivers Avian Center near Hinton. “I wouldn’t be surprised to have a nesting pair there, like we do at Bluestone Dam. I suspect it’s only a matter of time.”
Perrone is part of a volunteer group known as the Eagle Brigade, which keeps track of eagle activity across Southern West Virginia.
During the group’s 16th annual Winter Eagle Survey, held on Jan. 9 along the New River and its tributaries upstream of Bluestone Lake, a total of 53 bald eagles were spotted.
Before a single bald eagle nest was discovered in a remote canyon along the South Branch of the Potomac River north of Moorefield in 1981, no nesting bald eagles had been known to exist in West Virginia for decades. There are now believed to be nearly 200 nests in the state, along every major river system.
The species’ comeback has been attributed to a ban on the pesticide DDT, which entered the food chain and caused abnormally thin shells to develop in the eggs of eagles and other raptors, and passage of the Clean Water Act, which restored fish populations that had dropped due to water pollution and toxic chemical contamination.