Seeing a bald eagle is a thrill that never wears thin and some of the best places on the East Coast to see our national bird are within a few minutes drive of William and Mary's campus.
You can occasionally see bald eagles from campus, but a surer bet is to go out to the Colonial Parkway between Jamestown and Yorktown. Eagles nest on Jamestown Island and they're a common sight from the meadows and beaches along the James River.
It's poetic justice to have bald eagles so accessible to us, since two of our researchers have deserved a lot of the credit for the comeback story of the bald eagle. Mitchell Byrd and Bryan Watts of William & Mary's Center for Conservation Biology have documented the return of the bald eagle in the Chesapeake Bay region from near-zero numbers to the point where there were enough of them for the species to be removed from the federal endangered species list in summer of 2007.
Each year, the Center for Conservation Biology conducts census flights during nesting season over the shoreline of the Chesapeake and its major tributaries. Quite often, it's Byrd and/or Watts climbing into the cockpit of a Cessna 172 operated by a former fighter pilot known as Captain Fuzzzo—spelled with three z's. The middle z, he says, is silent.
The Endangered Species Act allowed for eagle nesting areas to be protected from development. The Center for Conservation Biology's flights pinpointed the areas — even the individual trees — which needed to be protected. For their contribution to the eagle's comeback, Byrd and Watts received National Recovery Champion awards from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in March, 2008.
The story of the eagle is not over. Removal of the birds from the endangered species list will open up lots of prime real estate that once only eagles could call home.
About 95 percent of the eagle nests are within three kilometers of the main river channel. Eagles feed on fish and other aquatic prey, so they live in close proximity to the main shoreline, Watts said. Delisting presents a potential conflict because the shoreline property is the most valuable property for development.