[Bristol-Birds] Drama and delimia at SH Bald Eagle nest.

  • From: "Wallace Coffey" <jwcoffey@xxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "Bristol-birds" <bristol-birds@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Fri, 24 Apr 2009 18:18:59 -0400

The Bald Eagle nest at South Holston Lake in Washington Co., Va is, at best,
precarious and that may be a little disappointing.  Biologists believe a stout
wind could bring the tree down.

Today (4/24), we joined a research team, working with the William & Mary's
Center for Conservation Biology, to collect data from the nest and young 
as well as to band nestlings.  The research had to be abandoned because 
of a 15 mph wind speed and the poor condition of the nest tree.

Dave Kramar, a Ph.D. candidate from Virginia Tech, 
brought his climbing and banding crew to South Holston.  
I have been working with them since April 5 as an 
advisor regarding the nest access and to help provide 
information for coordinating landowner permission.  

Approval to climb to the nest and band the young 
was obtained from state officials by the William & Mary's 
CCB and eagle researcher Bryan Watts, research 
professor and current director of William & Mary's Center.
Kramar wanted to collect samples of evidence at the
nest which could aid in his research with the CBC in a study on depositional 
mercury in eagles in Virginia.  The nest at South Holston is the most western
known nest in state history and is in an area where mercury contamination in
rivers and probably impoundments, can be extremely important to these 
raptors and the research.

Police officers from the Virginia Department
of Game and Inland Fisheries, were on hand
to help with the project and provided boat
transportation to get equipment and crew
to the nest site.  Sgt. Dennis Austin and 
Officer Larry Walls (both of Washington Co.)
provided the state boat and worked with the

After an hour in boating to the steep ridge and
climbing its face, the team reached the nest
tree.  It was not substantial enough to hold a
185-pound biologist in the small limbs at the top and with the breeze blowing 
thru the
crown.  The effort may be attempted under better conditions but it appears that 
chance of climbing to the nest are now slim.

The nest is located an estimated 110 feet above the
ground in a White Pine tree with the first limbs about
90 feet above the ground.  The team had climbing spikes
and ropes for such a tall tree.  The tree is maybe 30 in.
in diameter.  The nest is about average size for a
Bald Eagle and Kramar estimated it was about 5 to 6
feet in diameter.  It is about 3 feet in depth.  The area
under the tree is heavily covered with excrement from
the birds but ground crew leader and eagle bander Carolynn McMullen pointed to 
notable lack of prey remains below the nest.  She felt it might be an indicator 
scavengers cleaning up whatever morsels fall from the nest.  A single eagle 
was found on the ground.  It was collected to analyze for samples of mercury 
since such chemical contamination does show up in the feathers.  There are no 
samples ever taken of Bald Eagles during the nesting season in western most 

Had all gone well, Carolynn was
prepared to double band any
eaglets with both an aluminum
USF&W Service band and a color
band as shown at the left on an
eaglet marked in eastern Virginia.

The purple looking band is the 
color used to mark eagles in
Virginia and allows for birds to
be identified in the field because
a birder or researcher has to only
 read the upper and lower characters such as H2 shown above.  The federal band 
 closed with a rivet which keeps the eagle from removing it and has a 
registered serial

 Kramar noted that the roots of the towering White Pine are exposed at the 
 and beginning to rot.  The insides of the pine at the base are an open cavity 
 the tree is riddled with woodpecker holes, including the Pileated Woodpecker 
 the tree heavily infested with Carpenter Ants.  He believes the extent of 
 under the nest and the large amount of sticks hanging in the limbs and 
covering the
 ground, suggest this is at least a second year nest.

 "I suspect this nest will not make it more than another year or so because the 
 is very likely to fall," said Kramar.  
McMullen said she has been with the team for 
about two years and they have banded eaglets
at about 14 nests.

Kramar said his judgment is there is
probably only one eaglet in the South Holston
nest.  He agreed it is probably three weeks of
age.  However, he has seen only one eaglet at
the nest and believes, if there were two,
the other would be large enough to observe
as well as the one eaglet that is visible.  

A third member of the team is Justin Miller of
the Blacksburg area.  He is a volunteer field
technician with the crew.  He works on similar projects with Virginia Tech and 
recommended by the faculty.  Miller is in his third year working with Kramar.
McMullen said she plans to soon enter vet school at Virginia Tech.  

Kramar, who has been climbing nests and collecting data with his crew in the 
part of the, says he hopes to finish is Ph.D. by next spring.  His graduate
committee is co-chaired by Dr. Bill Carstesen and Dr. Bill Hopkins.   Bryan 
Watts is
also a member of his committee.

Born in California and raised in Nelson Co., Va., Kramar received a Bachelor's 
degree in 
Geography and Planning from Appalachian State University. He went on to pursue 
a Master's degree in Geography from Virginia Tech, and his graduate research 
took him to Maine. His thesis work involved employing GIS-based mapping 
to estimate the levels of mercury found in Common Loon blood from land cover 
characteristics. The project was a collaborative effort with the BioDiversity 
Institute (BRI), a non-profit research group based in Gorham, Maine.

Kramar's research is funded by a EPA STAR graduate fellowship program which 
master's and doctoral candidates in environmental studies. Each year, students 
in the 
United States compete for STAR fellowships through a rigorous review process. 

Bristol Bird Club President Dave Worley joined the team for the day's 
activities.  He
is especially fascinated with the camera at an eastern Virginia eagle nest 
which can be 
watched live over the internet.  Just yesterday he watched biologists band 
those young.

Let's go birding . . . 

Wallace Coffey
Bristol, TN

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