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07/26/2013 06:48 am ET Updated Sep 25, 2013

Bald Eagles Make Huge Comeback Along Virginia's James River, Around Chesapeake Bay

On the Fourth of July, hundreds of people flopped in chairs and blankets along Shields Lake in Byrd Park to await a fireworks show.

The fireworks came early when an adult bald eagle -- shining white head and tail, dark body -- landed in a pine by the lake, providing the patriotic crowd a long look at our nation's living symbol.

It was a huge surprise, particularly on the Fourth. But in one of Virginia's great environmental success stories, your chances of seeing a bald eagle are the best in decades -- maybe centuries.

A new survey shows that the eagle population in the James River region has topped 200 pairs for the first time since good written accounts began in the 1930s.

"My guess would be this is the best the population has been in 300 years," said eagle expert Bryan Watts.

In an interview and a written statement, Watts described an astounding comeback for a majestic bird whose nests disappeared entirely from the James in the mid-1970s.

Watts is director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William & Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University. He and other scientists conducted a survey of James River eagles by air in March and May. He tallied the figures this past weekend.

The survey found 205 eagle pairs along the James -- more than triple the 56 pairs in 2000.

"The dramatic recovery reflects the resiliency of both the bald eagle and James River," Watts said.

People have made life hard for eagles for a long time. In the 1800s, land-clearing for farms took a lot of the trees the birds nested in.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, people made money by taking eagle eggs and shooting and stuffing adults for aficionados. "It was like stamp collecting," Watts said.

New trees grew, and new laws outlawed the shootings.

After World War II came toxic chemicals including the pesticide DDT, which got into the fish the eagles ate. Eagles were pushed to the brink of extinction across the continental U.S. in the 1960s and?'70s.

There were just 33 pairs of eagles in Virginia in 1977. Along the James, there were zero.

What made the James so much worse? Experts believe the DDT problems were intensified by the pesticide Kepone, which a Hopewell company dumped into the James in the 1960s and?'70s in a well-publicized environmental disaster.

The federal government banned the use of DDT in 1972 and Kepone a few years later, and eagles started their comeback.

Today, a nearly 40-mile stretch of the tidal, freshwater James -- from the Dutch Gap area near Chester to eastern Charles City County -- harbors one of the country's top concentrations of eagles, herons and other fish-eating birds.

"The James River population represents the best example of bald eagle recovery in the nation," Watts said.

Barbara Slatcher, a Hanover County birdwatcher, said, "I think it's still a rare treat" to see an eagle in the Richmond metro area. But if you are in a boat around Hopewell, she said, "they are flush with eagles."

While the James is a major hotspot for them, eagles are flourishing across the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal tributaries.

There are an estimated 1,600 to 2,000 pairs in the bay region, including Virginia and Maryland, Watts said.

That equates to about 20,000 birds altogether, including youngsters that haven't started building nests.

"That's why people are seeing eagles more and more," Watts said. "It's hard to hide 20,000 eagles."

About two years ago, the bay region topped Florida as home of the top eagle concentration on the East Coast, Watts said. Florida has about 1,300 pairs.

The eagle population boom means more and more birds are battling over territory. "There is going to be an increase in fighting and mortality," Watts said, "but that's just eagles doing their thing."

The city of Richmond continues to harbor one eagle pair, Virginia and James, the stars of last year's popular Richmond Eagle Cam. They nested this year on Williams Island in the James and raised one chick.

rspringston@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6453 ___

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