NEW MARTINSVILLE — “There’s one! On the left limb of the tree just to the right of the big sycamore straight across the river.”
At a boat landing on the Ohio side of the Ohio River, 12 birders affiliated with the Mountwood Bird Club swept the river and an expanse of West Virginia shoreline before them with binoculars and spotter scopes.
The viewing aids crisscrossed the river as club members called out the locations of pied-billed grebes, ring-necked ducks and other birds of interest as they flew or drifted into sight, until someone called out “Eagle! Left branch of the tree just to the right of the sycamore almost straight across from us.”
Suddenly, all eyes and lenses were trained on the limb and the juvenile bald eagle perched upon it. The fifth bald eagle of the club’s annual Ohio River Eagle Watch was officially identified and entered into logbooks.
Before the 2020 Eagle Watch ended, a total of 7 bald eagles — four adults and three juveniles — had been spotted along the Ohio in Pleasants, Tyler and Wetzel counties between the Willow Island and Hannibal lock and dam complexes. It was an average count for the annual one-day survey according to Dick Esker, a member of the Parkersburg-Marietta area bird club. The 2020 survey matched the number recorded last January, but fell short of the 2017 tally, when 14 bald eagles were spotted.
Most of Thursday’s Eagle Watch sightings occurred in the vicinity of five known bald eagle nesting sites previously identified by club members along the route of the survey. One of the adult bald eagles was seen perched on a shoreline tree limb adjacent to a baseball field behind the New Martinsville Walmart, not far from a hillside nest site on the Ohio side of the river.
Bald Eagle sightings along West Virginia’s stretch of the Ohio River were once so rare they warranted press coverage, like this Jan. 31, 1987 piece from the Charleston Gazette:
“A bald eagle, rare in West Virginia, was sighted this week at New Haven in Mason County,” it began. “Department of Natural Resources officials and Appalachian Power Co. employees reported seeing the eagle feeding on fish in the Ohio River on Wednesday and Thursday.”
The article went on to describe the eagle as being “a mature bird, as big as a wild turkey, with a snow white head,” and quoted a DNR wildlife biologist as saying it was the first sighting of a bald eagle in Mason County in 15 years.
In 1981, six years before that Gazette article appeared, wildlife biologists confirmed the presence of West Virginia’s first known bald eagle nest. Located in a remote canyon of the South Branch of the Potomac River near the Hardy-Hampshire County line, the nest produced several sets of eaglets in the years that followed.
By the early 1990s, several other eagle nests had been established in the state’s Potomac headwaters area.
During the following decade, the DNR’s Nongame Wildlife staff and volunteers began monitoring established bald eagle nests to tally nesting pairs and keep track of the number of young eagles they produced.
In 2005, birders in Southern West Virginia began keeping tabs of transient eagles, while keeping an eye out for possible nesting activity along the New, Bluestone and lower Greenbrier rivers in Summers and Mercer counties.
It wasn’t until 2006 that the first active nest not in the Potomac watershed turned up in the annual DNR-volunteer nest monitoring survey. The new nest, found along the Ohio in Hancock County at the tip of the Northern Panhandle, produced two eaglets that year.
By 2010, new nests were found on the Cheat and New, as well as the Ohio and the Potomac, and by 2013, 34 nests were being monitored statewide, including nests along the Ohio in Wood, Jackson, Cabell and Hancock counties.
Birders in Southern West Virginia have since identified 12 bald eagle nesting sites along the New and its tributaries between Hinton and the Virginia border. During that group’s annual eagle watch day last January, 56 eagles were tallied. This year’s southern winter survey was scheduled to take place on Saturday.
Meanwhile, back in the Ohio River, the DNR kept track of any eagles seen along the West Virginia stretch of the river during the agency’s annual helicopter-borne one-day winter waterfowl survey. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge staff followed suit with January boat surveys along the Ohio between Willow Island and New Martinsville, site of the Hannibal Lock and Dam complex.
“We’re following up on the work done by the DNR and the Fish and Wildlife Service, but not in any official capacity,” said Esker, who serves as a volunteer with the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge.
Since the discovery of West Virginia’s first bald eagle nest in 1981, more than 100 nests have been established statewide as of last year.
In 1963, only 417 such nests were known to exist in the lower 48 states, due mainly to widespread use of DDT, which allowed the pesticide to enter the food chain and interfere with the reproductive systems of a number of wildlife species. In many instances, the pesticide rendered eagles’ eggs shells too thin to accommodate nest activity, including incubation.
Bald eagles received Endangered Species Act protection in 1969, but following a ban on U.S. DDT use in 1972, had recovered enough by 2017 to no longer require endangered or threatened species protections.
The bald eagle’s increasing presence along the Ohio River is also believed to be a result of the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972, which set limits on pollutants allowed to be discharged into public waterways. Cleaner water in the Ohio led to a healthier, more abundant fish population, providing a reliable food source for the birds of prey.
“Bald eagles have made a really nice comeback here,” said Janice Emrick, past president of Mountwood Bird Club’s parent organization, the Brooks Bird Club, and among volunteers taking part in Thursday’s Eagle Watch.