Want to see Eagles in Southern WV?

This season, all eyes are on the newest power couple of the West Virginia wilderness: Brooks and Sandy.

They swooped into the right place at the right time, and inherited fame. The pair, a mating couple of bald eagles, unknowingly brought life back to the barren Brooks Island nest— a historic nest, because its landmark discovery as the region’s first in 2010 signaled what local bird watchers have been hoping for for decades: eagles are finally returning to Southern West Virginia.

Eagle with the Three Rivers Avian CenterThe raptors who originally reigned over Brooks Island soared those hopes even higher with several seasons of baby eagles. Since it was easy to see right into their nest from a safe watching distance above (and since eaglets are so darn adorable), the public followed along on the proud parents’ journey via Facebook— both for their triumphs, and their tragedies.

Last spring, the original mates both met untimely ends when they were hit by vehicles/trains. The female pulled through after her first collision, but only after a lot of dedicated care from rehabilitators. Then, in a swift and crushing turn of events, only weeks after her recovery, she was struck again, and this time wasn’t as lucky. Her mate’s fate was never confirmed, but the nest watchers believe he eventually succumbed to his injuries, too.

“When I was growing up in the 60s, I never thought about seeing an eagle, much less living in eagle territory.”

After that heartbreaking blow, Brooks and Sandy settling into the historic nest was a welcome and uplifting twist to its legacy.

“We’re rooting for them,” said Wendy Perrone, Executive Director of the Three Rivers Avian Center, which monitors the eagle population, and rehabilitated the former nest mother. “The public has been along for the ride. It’s been a roller coaster, but we’re hoping these guys are a little more savvy.”

Brooks and Sandy are unaware of the promise that rests on their wings, but it’s not hard to hope that eagles will be able to come back from the brink. Their numbers in the area now are a success story, considering that before 1992, you couldn’t spot these majestic giants anywhere in the SWV skies. There are now 59 known eagles in the New River area and along its tributaries, and the numbers are growing each year.

Monitoring Success

How do we know the numbers are growing? Because of the dedicated monitoring by the Avian Center staff and volunteers.

“It’s really rewarding,” she said. “When I was growing up in the 60s, I never thought about seeing an eagle, much less living in eagle territory.”

It’s not just counts they keep. Volunteers spend a lot of time observing the birds’ behaviors and tracking their progress, comparing notes to get a better picture of how the eagles are doing. One thing that has become very clear: eagles aren’t very predictable.

“Sometimes we think an area is good for nests, but they don’t think so,” Perrone laughed. She also said finding the nests was sometimes a struggle. Volunteers start the search when they suspect a nest might be near, but even when they’re looking right where they should be, sometimes they don’t spot it until the eagles land right in it.

“And the nests are pretty big,” she said. “They’re 6 to 8 feet across. You could put a VW bug in one of them. You’d think they would stick out like a sore thumb, but they hide them well.”

"When you see a bird with an 8-foot wingspan, it’s hard to visualize until it flies past you. The size is striking.”

To help with the spotting and tracking duties, volunteers with the Pipestem Eagle Survey head out to viewing sites around Southern WV twice. These sky scanners have trekked out in the cold January weather to count eagles for 10 years, and after noticing an increase in both golden and bald eagle sightings, they added a second survey in March to watch for nesting activity.

Jim Phillips, the naturalist who runs the surveys, said through his years observing, he’s been able to witness some unexpected mannerisms and captivating moments.

“We see them catch food. Ducks, fish,” he said. “They have a habit of stealing from other birds. Once, we watched one eagle track down another and take its fish. We’ve seen eagles swim, and even hang upside down to try to take a branch for their nest.”

January’s survey participants spotted 52 bald eagles and 2 golden eagles. That’s 3 times as many total sightings as last year. The spring survey in March counted 24, with 2 nests incubating eggs.

Public Eagle Watching

The Pipestem Eagle Surveys are open to the public. Even if you’re a first-timer, you’ll get partnered with a more experienced bird watcher, who can help you spot and identify the raptors.

Another opportunity to gain hands-on guidance from birders awaits atop the Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory, a scenic lookout tower tucked into the remote Monroe County mountains. Volunteers there count all the birds of prey flying through between mid-August and mid-November. Last year, they counted 160 bald eagles and 30 golden eagles.

Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory in WVWith data stretching back into the 70s, the numbers very clearly capture the growth trend of the eagle population. The bald eagle numbers didn’t hit triple digits until 2010, and as recently as the mid 90s, they hadn’t even climbed above 10.

For the counters, the experience at Hanging Rock is like no other. More than 2,000 visitors join a small but dedicated team of experienced volunteers, hiking out to the tower each season for a truly unique opportunity to watch birds of prey in the wild.

“I love first time visitors,” said Rodney Davis, a regular volunteer at the observatory. “They make the mile hike, climb over and see a tower on a rock. They still haven’t grasped the view until they’ve climbed the stairs. You can see 50 miles in any direction. Almost invariably, the first word is ‘wow.’

And the view of the birds is even better. The most attractive feature of Hanging Rock is the vantage point. Eagles often soar through right at eye level, or even below, giving anyone in the tower a rare look at the birds in flight.

“The birders can identify, just by size, an eagle at 3 miles away or more,” Davis said. “So we can call attention to it as it comes in. Some people are in awe of how big they are. When you see a bird with an 8-foot wingspan, it’s hard to visualize until it flies past you. The size is striking.”

They’ll nuzzle beaks like they’re kissing, or bring each other food.

Of course, if you’re more interested in watching a nest, the Pipestem Surveys are your best chance. Some of the volunteers get sent out to monitor the nesting couples, to see if they seem to be incubating or caring for young. Watching the eagle couples has its own allure.

“It’s so interesting to see them interact with each other,” Phillips said. “They’ll nuzzle beaks like they’re kissing, or bring each other food.”

Whether they’re sharing a moment together or just flying overhead, all the bird watchers agreed that when people spot their first eagle, the reaction is always one of awe.

And yet, for all the wonder we find in eagles, we are still one of the biggest threats to them.

Stepping In

Sometimes protecting the eagle population means more than just monitoring. The Avian Center rehabilitates injured raptors, from eagles to owls and falcons. The eagles are the largest bird of prey, but Perrone said they’re standout from the other patients at the center in more ways than size.

“They’re on a whole other plane from other birds and raptors,” she said. “They’re intelligent. If you can get them to trust you, their ability to participate in the rehabilitation process is astounding. I’ve seen an eagle come in that couldn’t stand because of lead poisoning, and seen it not fight the treatment.

“Seeing them come through all that, then fly off when we release them is a marvelous experience. There’s nothing like it.”

Eagle at TRACTheir intelligence can be a challenge, too. Recently, a strong-willed, feisty female managed to work around her broken wing to give the crew a chase along a rugged ridge.

They did finally catch her by scooping her out of a stream. Her wing was badly damaged, and she’s also suffering from lead poisoning. She is (begrudgingly) getting treatment, but some of the damage can’t be undone: the brood patch on her body tells the staff she was a mother-to-be. She may recover, but since she can’t return to her nest, the eggs she was incubating will not.

Though no one knows exactly how she got her injuries, the lead poisoning wasn’t a surprise. It’s not uncommon for raptors in the region. Lead pollutes many of the streams in Southern West Virginia, as discarded car batteries, hunting ammunition, lead pipes and other contaminants have washed into the waters. Once it’s there, it doesn’t break down. It simply moves from pond-dwellers and fish up the food chain, so when raptors dine on their prey, they’re often taking in a buildup of lead, too.

You can keep up with the eagle’s progress at the Three Rivers Avian Center Facebook page.

The Future of SWV Eagles

Back at the Brooks nest, there’s no confirmation that there will be hatchlings yet, since no one has spotted the eggs— but that’s only because our egalitarian eagles have been taking turns sitting atop the nest. They seem to be incubating, so the chances are very good that at least one chick is on the way.

Not that all the eggs are in one nest. The Brooks Island nest may have been the original, and it still has a fan following, but it is no longer the only one in the area. There are a handful across Southern West Virginia.

Perrone said she expected the number of eagles to continue to grow. While she and her staff monitor and rehabilitate the birds to help boost those numbers, they’re also helping on another front: education.

“We have a whole program on ecosystem stewardship,” she said. “We’re as much a part of nature as trees in our backyard. We try to bring up things people don’t always want to talk about.”

“We’re as much a part of nature as trees in our backyard."

In addition to lead, cigarette butts and other garbage can be a danger for eagles and raptors, who pick it up and use it in their nests. Assuming the chicks don’t die from the exposure, they can take in abnormally high levels of nicotine, which slows them down and make them confused, ultimately weakening their chance for survival. And that’s just one of many human hazards.

When educating the public about how they can help prevent these dangers, the center brings in its educational birds to captivate audiences, and stand as an example of what they are trying to protect.

One resident raptor charming the crowds is Regis, the bald eagle, who revels in the chance to show off. He’s named because of his regal nature. (“Well, most of the time,” notes Perrone.)

“When he first came in, he was kind of shy, and wasn’t sure about meeting the public. But he’s become a complete ham,” she said. “He steals the show. He’s very interactive with me. It’s definitely a team up there. He talks and vocalizes during the program.”

You can catch his performance during upcoming programs, or explore the center during its open house every first Saturday from May through October.

If you want to see an eagle on your own, Perrone suggested the Bluestone Lake area, which has the highest concentration of eagles. There’s a good chance you’ll catch a glimpse of at least one.

And maybe if you give it a few years, those chances will be even higher.


 *UPDATE: The Brooks Island nest eggs did not make it this season. It is not clear why, but it may have been the heavy rains. There is still hope for chicks in the nest next season, though! Stay posted on TRAC’s Facebook page. 


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