Raptors on the Rebound
Raptor populations in the Blue Ridge have been recovering in recent years; for birdwatchers, winter is best for spotting golden eagles, especially along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
There are birds, and then there are birds - guaranteed head turners. An adult bald eagle, for instance: head and tail gleaming white as fresh-fallen snow on a bright winter morning; impossibly long, dark wings held flat as a board.
When one of these cruises by a Blue Ridge Parkway hawkwatch, binoculars home in, and there’s a collective intake of breath. Everyone follows the bird until it’s out of sight. If it’s close enough, you can see the curved yellow beak, yellow feet tucked against undertail coverts. When the bird disappears, the hearts of its viewers flood with the odd, simultaneous sensations of fulfillment and longing. See one, and you want to see another one. Sooner rather than later. Now.
Spend enough time at a parkway hawkwatch –at Rockfish Gap (milepost 0), Harvey’s Knob (MP 95.4) or Mahogany Rock (MP 235) – during the fall migration and your chances are good for seeing a bald eagle. You might see one in summer too, at Claytor Lake, near Radford, Va., where there is a confirmed breeding pair.
Bald eagles are “almost common in the fall or spring, less so in winter,” says Harrol Blevins of Blue Ridge Birders, a bird club serving southwest Virginia and northwest North Carolina. “They’re moving around in the spring and fall. They have to have open water, so they move south, or south and east, when it freezes over up north. They may stay for a while and move farther south.”
If winter’s not the best time to see bald eagles, it’s the only time to see a rough-legged hawk. Last winter, a rough-legged was discovered on a Christmas bird count at Cheek Mountain, near Sparta, N.C. A boreal species that seldom strays this far south, the sighting “was a first for Alleghany County,” Blevins says. “No one in Blue Ridge Birders had – or knew of– a record for the county.” The hawk wasn’t passing through; it stuck around the mountain’s high ridges for most of the winter.
Winter’s the best time too, to see a golden eagle. Occasionally, in late October and November, they’re counted at parkway hawkwatches, but they’re anything but common: for 2007 and 2008, Rockfish had a total of five; Harvey’s Knob, 17; Mahogany Rock, seven. Primarily a western – or Rocky Mountain – bird, it’s not common, “but it is here every winter,” Blevins says. “We’ve had multiple sightings on the New River, and they’re found all over Alleghany County. The key is spending time, and knowing what you are looking for.”
And, of course, knowing where to look. For the last three years, in late fall and early winter, one easily accessible place has been Doughton Park on the Blue Ridge Parkway (weather permitting). “Golden eagles have been sighted hanging out in the Bluffs area at the park from November to the beginning of January. Then they disappear,” says Jim Keighton, a member of BRB and the official Mahogany Rock hawkwatch record keeper. The first two winters, the bird was near Alligator Back; last winter Keighton saw it twice from Wildcat Rocks overlook, soaring high above Basin Creek Cove and Caudill Cabin.
“The bird I saw was a juvenile,” he says. “It could have been the same bird that was here before, since eagles take multiple years to attain their adult plumage.” Will they become permanent winter residents of Basin Cove? He hopes so. Reports that golden eagles “are affecting turkey populations in the Midwest in winter,” suggest to him that recent explosive growth in northwest North Carolina’s wild turkey population may be luring them.
Perhaps. Raptor populations have been recovering since DDT’s use was outlawed, says Blevins, who remembers winter golden eagle sightings in the area a decade or more ago, when he returned home after a career in the Air Force.
“They’re just here,” he says. “There’s been a general trend of increasing eagle populations since the DDT ban; now they’re getting more common. There may be breeding populations not that far north and west of us. Raptors move around when they’re not breeding and they’re very territorial.” Population pressure may be forcing birds to expand their winter range, looking for habitats that will support them.
Whatever the explanation, southern Blue Ridge raptor lovers can scan winter skies now with hope of seeing more than turkey vultures and resident redtails. If Doughton Park, Cheek Mountain and the New River don’t yield anything, Blevins recommends a winter pilgrimage to Burkes Garden, in Tazewell County, Va. It’s a “large bowl” – known variously as the Devil’s Frying Pan and the Lord’s Thumbprint – where golden eagles are regularly seen. “It’s fairly reliable for rough-legged hawks too,” he says. “Our birding group usually takes a trip up there in January or February. You’re almost assured of seeing a golden eagle, maybe multiples.”