Monitoring Eagle Nests At Jordan: 13 Good Years
In 2005 I became a volunteer eagle nest monitor at Jordan Lake. I was thrilled. What could possibly be cooler, I wondered, for a birder-slash-paddler like me, than getting to do a worthwhile task involving such a glamorous bird?
The Army Corps of Engineers manages eagle nest monitoring at Jordan Lake and at Falls. The job is shared equally by civilian volunteers and a variety of county, state and federal employees. Nest monitoring is a voluntary holdover (no longer a requirement) from the days when Bald Eagles were listed as an endangered species. De-listed in 2007, eagles have recovered well all over the Southeast. At Jordan, for years there were about six active Bald Eagle nests. That number doubled to slightly more than a dozen three years ago. More birds are squeezing in.
So off I trudged, that first season, through scrub woods from a parking lot near Hwy 751. I carried a heavy scope and tripod on my shoulder for almost a mile, to take a position on the shore and peer at a nest three-quarters of a mile away across a finger of the lake. I didn’t see much nest activity that year—1300 yards was too far away, really—but I saw other eagles hanging around the north end of the lake and I began to learn what they like: for hunting, shallow, carp-filled water; for perching, big, open, stout-limbed shoreline pines.
Would I like to try a new nest, I was asked the next year by my Corps contact. Yes! So she led me on a hike skirting a Wildlife Commission dove field and a beautiful farm, then through woods to the edge of a beaver marsh on Big Beaver Creek. This was about a half-mile upstream from the lake.
There I saw the most perfect nest site, at least at Jordan, that any eagle could ever wish for: an isolated live pine standing surrounded by water—a very private, hard to reach spot, and easily defended. No trails nearby, no open water with fishing boats. From my vantage point 100 yards away, I had a clear view of the nest, and that spring I enjoyed seeing the two big brown babies get as large as the adults and stomp around the nest rim.
In my two seasons monitoring the Beaver Creek nest, the one thing I didn’t much care for was the walk in alone. I never saw another soul—no creepy people—but I was always slightly on edge.
In 2008 I moved to a nest on the White Oak Creek arm of the lake. This nest, in a live pine, taught me about eagles and site fidelity. The nest was in the third different tree I had seen in the same beaver impoundment.
Eagles use the same huge nest year after year until the tree falls down or a predator gets to the nest or an accident happens. An accident did happen here, after my time. In May 2014 a spring storm washed two almost-grown young eagles over the edge of the nest; they died from the fall. Although in 2015 the nest appeared to be mostly still intact, the parent birds did not return. I later learned that they built a new nest considerably farther up-marsh, out of the original impoundment.
The White Oak Creek nest was the first I could monitor from my kayak, and I loved doing that–among other reasons, because I felt much safer alone in a boat than alone on land. The paddling distance was two miles one way. I could sit in my boat and have a clear view of the birds from a vantage point that never made them uncomfortable.
The White Oak nest also was the first I ever saw with three babies in a brood. Two is the more usual brood size. To have three eaglets make it all the way to fledging, as the parents did at least two seasons when I observed them, meant a couple of things. First, food was abundant. Second, these were capable parents. The other interesting thing about this pair was that they always got on with egg laying early, undoubtedly in January because their young tended to fledge at the end of March. (That timing later changed, as the May 2014 accident shows; perhaps there was a new female in the pair.)
The White Oak nest, unlike most, was on solid ground easily reached by humans via a logging road off Hwy 751; the nest became known to a fair number of people, who went to see it, including a troop of Boy Scouts. As a rule, eagles at Jordan pick inaccessible spots, and new nests are discovered by searching from the air. Every winter a pilot flies a Corps biologist over the lakeshore and beaver marshes.
I was offered just such a new nest in 2011. This one was up a creek about three and a half miles from a rough roadside launching spot. The creek was blocked near the nest by a fallen tree, firmly wedged bank to bank. Sometimes the water was high enough for me to float over the obstacle. More often, I had to get out of my boat into the mud, pull around the tree and relaunch.
That first year the eagle pair at this new nest seemed very nervous to me, always swiveling their heads around, even though I observed them from a good distance away and I was mostly screened by trees. On a late February visit I didn’t see an eagle on or near the nest. Again in March there were no eagles present, and I got the strong feeling that the nest had been abandoned, for reasons I never knew. It was the first nest failure I observed, and after seeing so many successful nestings, it shocked me.
But the next two years were successful, if I remember right. The parents never again seemed skittish and they got on with raising young.
In 2014 I got my most difficult nest of all. The Corps biologist thought he had glimpsed it from a boat but wasn’t sure. Would I want to try to find it? I found it. (Proudly.) It was another northern nest, in a live pine surrounded by willows and water, visible only along one sight line from about 250 yards away. After deciduous trees leafed out in late March the nest was all but invisible. And it was a four-mile paddle one way to reach the spot.
After a couple of difficult years I learned the hard way that in late spring I would have to climb out of my kayak, sink in the marsh mud and set up my scope in the water to see anything at all of developing young. This once led to a little misadventure, but it worked.
My years of nest monitoring were also the years when I became a more proficient and experienced flatwater kayaker. I took courses and learned to do self- and assisted rescues (including a rite-of-passage roll), learned better paddling technique, learned to assess and mitigate risks. And I built a couple of skin-on-frame kayaks in classes. I still paddle one of them.
As you might guess, there’s a fair amount of risk involved in paddling to an eagle nest alone in winter, say January to early March, when the water temperature is in the mid-40s to low 50s. I almost always went alone because the Corps asks monitors not to show nests to sightseers.
Yet I’m a conservative paddler, and I always mitigated the risk as much as possible by waiting for calm weather, air above 40 degrees, and going out only when I felt good, wearing a drysuit. I never had any problems. But in 2016 I missed all of January and February from a combination of bad weather, illness and out-of-state travel.
This year, my fourth season at the difficult nest and my thirteenth overall, it dawned on me one day that I was looking for ways to put off going out—weather just a bit iffy, my body not feeling quite up to it, maybe tomorrow instead of today. Just making excuses. So that thought raised another: time to pack it in?
Maybe. I’m not completely sure yet.
What I still love is being in a kayak alone on the water. My mind empties out, my eyes get wide, and I lose myself completely in the sights and sounds of all of it: birds, sky, wind, trees, even passing helicopters and planes on final approach to RDU. I would like to see some new water, especially black water, and a lot more cypress. I’d like to see some new birds. Float down coastal plain rivers and camp who knows where. Thread my way through spartina and needle rush in a salt marsh.
If I were writing my last words on this subject, I’d say what I believe: It’s a beautiful world out there. Land or water, doesn’t matter. Just go outside. Go! Lose yourself. And feed your soul.