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NPR’s 'Morning Edition' reports on the state of James River eagles

  • Eagles on the James
    Eagles on the James  National Public Radio reporter Elizabeth Shogren checks over her equipment on a eagle-spotting cruise with William & Mary graduate student Courtney Turrin (front) and Bryan Watts of the Center for Conservation Biology. Shogren did a story for NPR’s Morning Edition on the comeback of the nation’s bird along the James River.  Photo by Bryan Watts/Center for Conservation Biology
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National Public Radio’s Elizabeth Shogren came to the right place to do a story on the resurgence of bald eagles.

Shogren, from NPR’s science desk, is working on a series about recovery of species that were once threatened or endangered. In mid-August, she went on a James River cruise with Bryan Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology, and Courtney Turrin, a William & Mary graduate student studying the area’s eagle population.

Shogren's story, headlined "Bald Eagles Are Back In A Big Way — And The Talons Are Out,” focuses on fights among eagles for breeding territory. It covers much of the same ground as a story written by William & Mary's Lillian Stevens. (See "Among the Eagles..." in Related Links.)

The James River has become known as “comeback central” for bald eagles. Watts and his predecessor at the CCB, Mitchell Byrd, have documented the return of the nation’s bird to the Chesapeake Bay region and the James River in particular. Earlier in August, the CCB had announced that their spring census flights showed that the eagles had returned to the James in record numbers. The James holds more breeding eagles now than at any time in recorded history. Out on the river, Shogren was not only able to see plenty of them, but she also had ample opportunity to record eagle vocalizations for her radio piece.

“We were able to show Elizabeth somewhere between 60 and 80 eagles,” Watts said. “I think she got what she came for.”

Watts and Turrin showed some of the important sites in the decline-and-rebirth history story of bald eagles on the James River. They motored into Bailey’s Creek, site of early 70s pollution by kepone, a DDT-like insecticide that, decades later, is cited in human fish-consumption advisories in the James downstream of Richmond. They also showed the NPR journalist an eagle’s home, taking her into a nest. The chicks had fledged, so the eagles weren’t home, but Watts was able to talk about the resident eagles’ housekeeping habits by fishing out a couple of catfish spines the eagles had left behind.

The scientists discussed the ramifications of the eagle recovery and how the population dynamics play out when the eagle population nears the saturation point, the subject of Turrin’s research. Much of the discussion hinged on “floaters,” lone eagles that often challenge one or both of a pair of nesting birds, Watts said. The combats initiated by the presence of floaters can disrupt the parenting duties of nesting birds and therefore bring the populations into balance.

It’s not the first time Shogren has done a story on the CCB’s work with eagles. Shortly after the federal government removed the bird from the Endangered Species List in 2007, Sogren rode along on a CCB census flight along the Potomac River to discuss concerns that might arise from the eagle’s de-listing.

Watts said that journalism such as Shogren’s reports helps the general public to understand what he describes as “the social impact of eagles.”  He explained that he has discovered that as the eagles have repopulated the bays and rivers many people find value in the presence of their neighborhood bald eagles. The phenomenon is easy enough to understand among fellow raptor enthusiasts, but from a scientific standpoint, he says, “It’s a hard thing to put your finger on.”

The Center for Conservation Biology is working to harness the social impact of charismatic raptors. In 2012, the CCB launched OspreyWatch, a citizen-scientist initiative to collect data from waterfront landowners who have osprey nesting on their property. The CCB also has participated in highly popular eagle-cam websites offering views of nesting eagles in Richmond and Norfolk. Both of those sites have been discontinued, but Watts is working to bring a Hampton Roads eagle nest to the web for the 2014 breeding season.

The report was part of the Sept. 4 lineup of stories for NPR’s Morning Edition.

The Center for Conservation Biology is a joint program of William & Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University.