Biologists of a feather flock together: Byrd, Shermer, Watts spot eagles

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Biology professor Mitchell Byrd has been part of the team surveying bald eagles in the Chesapeake region since 1993. COURTESY PHOTO / CENTER FOR CONSERVATION BIOLOGY

For two and a half decades, a trio from the Center for Conservation Biology — Caton “Captain Fuzzzo” Shermer and College of William and Mary biology professors Bryan Watts and Mitchell Byrd — has been surveying the bald eagles in the Chesapeake region of Virginia. The three have worked together since 1993, documenting eagle activity on the James River.

Shermer, a former fighter pilot, has a distinct bird-spotting method. His technique involves flying a plane high enough to obtain an adequate aerial view, but low enough to view eagles’ nests.

“We fly up all the tributaries and we’re searching for new nests and checking on nests we know about, and documenting breeding events,” Watts said. “We go and check all the nests that have been active and count the chicks and age the chicks in the nest.”

Watts and Byrd join Shermer annually for this surveying process. The CBC is a research group run jointly by the College and Virginia Commonwealth University. This year, the group is searching for signs of peaking eagle populations around the Chesapeake region.

“My feeling this year is that the productivity will be down,” Watts said. “There were three winter storms that hit in late February, first half of March, and that’s a really bad time for the eagles.”

In the 1970s, there were no eagles in the James River. The trio of scholars has documented the increase in the size of the eagle population since then.

“We have been on a downward trend since the late 1990s,” Watts said. “It’s one of the main reasons why we continue to do the survey, even though eagles have recovered. … We’ve had exponential growth, but as you know that can’t continue indefinitely.”

In addition to the recent storms, the number of intruder species has increased since the 1990s, putting pressure on the population and causing the subsequent decline. According to Watts, this decline is unlikely to continue.

“So the population continues to grow slowly, but productivity has been declining, and ultimately will lead the population to become more stable,” Watts said.

“Counting eagles is one thing, and could probably be done from satellite photos frankly, but CCB gets data on reproductive output, which is a much more important result,” Cristol said in an email.

The biology community at the College recognizes the success of the research team. Biology professor Daniel Cristol, who is also an ornithologist, said that the trio’s methodology leads to more in-depth research results than scientists would be able to obtain via satellite.

“Counting eagles is one thing, and could probably be done from satellite photos frankly, but CCB gets data on reproductive output, which is a much more important result,” Cristol said in an email. “I think they are more likely to get useful information by flying low enough to see the number of chicks — remember that when eagles nearly were extirpated there were still lots of eagle nests, but the eggs were not hatching. Just counting from high in the sky doesn’t get the whole story.”

The team’s results have provided evidence for the upward trend in eagle populations and their recovery from the 1970s.

“Now that eagles are doing much better in terms of reproductive success and numbers, it would probably be OK in five years or so,” Cristol said .

Bird lovers at the College are not solely concentrated among faculty members — the College’s Bird Club provides an outlet for undergraduates interested in ornithology. The Bird Club organizes nature bird walks and field trips and is working on coordinating a bird strike program to ensure birds aren’t hitting windows. In regard to the CCB trio’s work, Bird Club President Megan Massa ’18 said it is crucial to studying bird patterns.

“The work that the CBC does is really important in understanding recovery through time,” Massa said.

During their nature walks, members of the Bird Club are able to observe eagles flying as well as eagle mating displays, allowing them to see firsthand how common the once-endangered bird is now and how successful the eagles’ recovery has been.

In recent years, the eagles have reached their last chapter of recovery since their lowest point in the 1970s.

“We’re committed to it, have been for decades,” Watts said. “It is now one of the best population databases in the world.”

In addition to the population database being a resource for biological research, Watts pointed out the implications it has for students close to home for students on the College’s campus.

“One of the things that the students should be aware of is that we live in a really fantastic time in terms of seeing eagles,” Watts said. “It wasn’t that many decades ago that there were none to be seen. … Just listen and look up, you can see eagles virtually every day. The recovery is here around us, and it’s to be seen and enjoyed.”