Eagles on icebergs and other sites

On Tuesday we linked to an article in the Free Lance-Star about our senior educator's annual one-day winter eagle survey. Here's his own account of the day...

Guest author, Bill Portlock, CBF Senior Educator

Bp_eagle_1I took newspaper reporter Rusty Dennen, news photographer Scott Nevelle, and USFWS Biologist Sandy Spencer out Saturday, February 25, on my boat to conduct a winter Bald Eagle survey on the Rappahannock River. You probably know the drill. Left Tappahannock at 0800 into a 20-30 mph north headwind with 27-degree air temperature, and a clear sky. Spray was flying and freezing on us and on the boat. I planned to cross the river and then go up 3 miles to Cat Point Creek where I knew it would be calmer. Getting there was the challenge. With head winds and mostly 2-3' seas (a few larger), we made our way. Then, at mid-channel, decks became awash and quickly frozen when a couple of 4 foot waves partially crashed over my bow.

Wayfaring_bald_eagle_count Past boat handling practice and experience in big winds and seas paid off in this could-have-been-a little-dangerous situation. While the boat is self-bailing, that is for water, not ice. And I knew I could not easily turn the boat around mid-channel in those conditions for fear of having the waves broadside us instead of now mostly coming broad on our bow, which I was handling OK.  So I pushed on, motoring rather quickly and with the boat occasionally pounding uncomfortably, as we continued to take icy spray. I wanted to make the creek as fast as possible before the weight of ice in the boat became an issue for the boat's stability. Completing our crossing was imperative now. I could assess all other possibilities for the day once we were in the creek. I also knew that the return trip would be drier and easier with following and quartering seas. The weather forecast was for the wind to drop through the day, too, so this morning should be the worst of it.

We found ourselves encrusted in ice as we reached Cat Point Creek three miles upstream. During the passage the reporter and photographer had hunkered down behind me aft in the cockpit so they were more sheltered. Once in the calm of the creek, and after checking with everyone for hypothermia, I bailed out most of the 'slushy-ice' bilge so the boat wouldn't be heavy. Then we started looking for eagles, with some ice still around & under our feet.

"Decks are a little slippery, be careful as you move about"�, I reminded everyone as we powered up creek, trying to sound professional and like this was just another normal day for me, and as a captain in control should sound. Three miles and forty eagles later we began leaving the creek, now 10am, to re-enter the river. The wind had dropped to 15-20 N and, with just a one-foot chop or less on the river, spray would not be a problem for us. Everyone assured me they were fine and wanted to continue the survey. I mentioned that one early sign of hypothermia is "bad judgment". We all laughed and then headed out, continuing up river and then back to Tappahannock to cover 75 miles in all, in open boat, by sunset. 

The ice in the boat never really melted until around 3pm, and the day's air temperature stayed in the high 30's. Water temperature was 35-36 F degrees all day. We even passed a real iceberg (c. 3' high, 30' long) leftover from last week's total freeze up of the river, hosting an eagle on it. Not a common Virginia sight.

We totaled 209 eagles for the day, which was actually lower than we expected. In comparison, we totaled 276 eagles last February, and 395 in 2005. But it was still a good day.

Bp_locking_talons It WAS a great day, really, with adventure, perseverance, some adversity, bracing weather, and excellent views all day of eagles perched, flying, fishing, talon-locking & mating, incubating eggs, and having the odd sensation of watching them watch us as we watched them. And for me, I feel very fortunate to be able to experience total immersion in this spectacular landscape for yet one more winter day.

February 25, 2007     Bill Portlock

To read Rusty's description & his version of the trip, check the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star on line at: www.fredericksburg.com/News/FLS/sooy/02200702252007.262901

Chesapeake Bay Foundation



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