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Eagle researchers listen to (and honor) two of their own

Mitchell Byrd (l) exchanges congratulations with Bryan Watts. A group of conservationists and eagle researchers recently took a break in a day of review and discussion of the current status of bald eagles to honor Bryan Watts, the center's director, and Mitchell Byrd, director emeritus, of William and Mary's Center for Conservation Biology.

Watts and Byrd—and the CCB itself—were recipients of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Recovery Champion awards for 2007. The luncheon presentation was a break in a day-long set of activities at the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries office at the Rice Center of Virginia Commonwealth University on June 12. That morning, Byrd and Watts had a group, including federal wildlife officials from offices in Washington, D.C., and Hadley, Mass., out on the James River to look at habitat used by bald eagles. After lunch, Watts gave a presentation on the strategic importance of the upper James and other areas of the Chesapeake Bay region. Such areas, he said, are important to migrating bald eagles from populations that nest along the entire Atlantic coast, from Florida up into the Maritime Provinces of Canada. (See related story, The Eagle Trappers.)

Watts' presentation sparked a three-hour discussion among state and federal wildlife officials with Center for Conservation Biology staff and other conservationists, including representatives of VCU and the Richmond Audubon Society. The discussion centered on the need for amended federal policies to protect sensitive areas of eagle habitat within the Chesapeake Bay region in the wake of the June, 2007 removal of the nation's bird from the U.S. Endangered Species List.

The day's activity was typical of the work that earned Watts and Byrd recognition for their contribution to the comeback of bald eagles. Virginia-based U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officers Joe McCauley and Karen Mayne prepared the documents nominating Watts and Byrd for the Recovery Champion award, in recognition of decades of work to bring back bald eagles on the east coast.

"I said, well this thing's going to just write itself. This is so easy, because these individuals have done so much for not only the bald eagle, but also for so many other declining species in the Commonwealth," McCauley said at the presentation. "It was the easiest nomination that I've ever had to prepare. I didn't need to go looking things up, I didn't need to think about it; I just wrote it out—first draft, boom!"

Mayne listed some of the other rare bird species that have benefitted from work by Byrd, Watts and the Center for Conservation Biology, including peregrine falcons, piping plovers and red-cockaded woodpeckers.

"What is unique about the CCB is that they not only do basic research, but it's applied. The input that Mitchell and Bryan have given to us in eagle management in Virginia has just been invaluable," she said. "And we could not have done what we have done for eagle management without their technical expertise and their knowledge of the birds, their knowledge of the ecology. We were out on the river this morning, and they were still filling us in on the ecology of bald eagles."