20 November 2004

Eagle Spirits...

My Creator, we thank you for the Eagles and the Visions that they bring...


Rituals: Along the Potomac, Bald Eagles Soar Once More
November 19, 2004

SEEING a bald eagle is, like so many things in life, a
matter of timing, chance, persistence and location. There
are few better places to try your luck than at the Mason
Neck National Wildlife Refuge in Fairfax County, Va., just
18 miles south of Washington.

In the 1960's, there were fewer than 500 nesting pairs of
bald eagles in the lower 48 states, and the birds seemed
destined to wind up as a memory, spreading their wings only
over flagpoles, weather vanes, mailboxes and pocket change.
But after almost 40 years on the government's list of
threatened species, there are now more than 7,000 pairs of
the birds, and the bald eagle - with its snowcapped head,
prominent yellow beak and seven-foot wingspan - has become
the ideal starter bird for bird-watchers.

This isn't to say that finding one is easy. But if you
spend time at Mason Neck, said Joe Witt, the refuge
biologist, "you're going to see eagles, unless you're
really unlucky." And that's even truer in winter, when more
than 100 migrating eagles arrive to wait out the cold

A comfortable overlook at the end of the refuge's Great
Marsh Trail gives you a seat at a natural amphitheater with
a 220-acre stage. On a recent morning, migrating geese
honked overhead. Wild rice rustled in the wind. And an
adult eagle rose along the shore, riding the thermals over
the oaks and hickories that crowd the marsh. The eagle's
size and its power stroke may be the first attributes to
strike an observer, but it's the flash of the white tail
that thrills.

Eagles announce their maturity with dramatic plumage. When
the eagle alighted across the marsh, its white head
appeared like an apparition in the trees. I watched it
preen its bright tail feathers, Tonka truck-yellow talons
grasping an oak branch. As the eagle kept a wary eye on me
over its shoulder, I tried to hide behind my compact
binoculars. But the bird had my number and lofted over the
marsh, swooping out of sight. A raft of ducks smacked their
wings in the wash, quacking in the eagle's shadow.
You would never mistake a full-grown eagle for another bird
of prey. The drab juveniles are not such easy marks and
could be mistaken for vultures on the wing. Vultures,
however, have a V-shaped, wobbly flight pattern, lacking
the determined stroke of a soaring eagle. Once you've got a
feel for birds, you'd be more likely to mistake a distant
plane for an eagle than you would a vulture. Eagles can
also be acrobatic. Two juveniles briefly locked talons
above the marsh, practicing the midair cartwheels they will
later perform during courtship.

Seeing all this in an afternoon, it's hard to believe that
Mason Neck was saved for the sake of a single bird, an
eagle that resided on this boot of land in 1969. The
presence of this lone raptor eventually helped protect more
than 2,000 acres of mature hardwood forest and a colony of
great blue herons that now numbers about 1,500 birds. (The
rookery is closed to the general public, though herons can
be spotted throughout the refuge.)

Most striking, the refuge and adjacent state park are now
hosts to a growing number of winter visitors. Many are
"floaters," as Mr. Witt calls eagles that just visit for
the season. Last year, there were also six nesting pairs.
According to Mr. Witt, the area has the advantage of
isolation: "There's only one road in and out."

That road, Route 242, takes you past Gunston Elementary
("Home of the Eagles," naturally) and Gunston Hall, the
18th-century home built by George Mason, prominent
landowner and author of the Virginia Bill of Rights. Though
his sentiments were reflected in the Declaration of
Independence, Mason would not sign the Constitution,
protesting its failure to protect civil liberties and stop
the importation of slaves. It took the nation a few years
to come around on civil liberties, adding the Bill of
Rights in 1789, the same year that the bald eagle was
adopted as the country's official bird. It was almost a
century before the United States got around to abolishing

In light of Mason's influence over our history, there may
be no better place to celebrate the bald eagle's return
than at the refuges that surround his plantation. In
October, as the marsh lights up in autumn reds, eagles
descend from Canada and the northern states. During the two
days I spent in the area, I was never skunked: eagles rose
over the Woodmarsh Trail, soared on the currents over
Belmont Bay, hunted in the waters off Occoquan, and made
their presence known from every overlook. Mating season was
about to begin.

In the 1960's, environmentalists weren't certain that
anyone in the lower 48 would ever get to see an eagle at
all. Rachel Carson warned in "Silent Spring" that the
national symbol seemed to be on the verge of extinction.
Marshes were being filled, and the wetlands that persisted
were barraged with DDT in an effort to beat back salt-marsh
mosquitoes. The pesticides disrupted the eagles'
reproduction, thinning eggshells and killing young birds.
THE Endangered Species Act played a crucial role in
protecting the eagle, which was added to the list of
threatened and endangered species in 1967. A
captive-breeding program was started, and critical habitat
was purchased to secure the bird's breeding areas. Mason
Neck was the first federal wildlife refuge established to
protect eagles. Penalties were imposed for shooting or
harming these birds of prey. Most important, in 1972, the
Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT. The protection
effort has been so effective that more eagles now nest
along Chesapeake Bay than were breeding in all the lower 48
states 40 years ago.

This year, the nonprofit organization Environmental Defense
began a campaign to celebrate the comeback of the bald
eagle. "The eagle is a bird that many Americans can now see
fairly easily," said Michael Bean, chairman of the
organization's wildlife programs. "It's important to
recognize success." Environmental Defense and the United
States Fish and Wildlife Service propose that it is time to
delist the eagle.

Not all those concerned with eagles think that's a good
idea. "The habitat's not getting any better," Mr. Witt said
as we walked the refuge. "The eagle is the national symbol.
You have to be cautious about it." Mason Neck is managed
for eagles, and precaution is taken throughout the refuge.
If a breeding pair chooses to nest near a trail, the area
is closed to the public. Part of the Woodmarsh Trail is
closed throughout the winter to give these wary birds some

The eagles of Chesapeake Bay don't limit themselves to
Mason Neck. They're found just to the north at Mount
Vernon, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland at the Blackwater
National Wildlife Refuge and along golf courses and off
parking lots. I took my lunch to the Occoquan Bay National
Wildlife Refuge nearby. Once a top-secret Army research
base, in 1998 Occoquan became part of the Potomac refuge
complex, which also includes Mason Neck. Even before the
transfer, grassland birds, white-tailed deer and bald
eagles took advantage of the open fields and marshes
protected by the military. As I ate my sandwich at the
gazebo overlooking Occoquan Bay, four crows screamed by. A
bald eagle followed close, great yellow talons arched.
Retreating to a nearby stand, the crows folded their wings.
The eagle altered course, flashing its tail like a winning
hand of cards, and soared silently over the bay.


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