John McCoy is the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette’s award-winning outdoors writer. His "Woods & Waters" page appears weekly in the Sports section of the Sunday Gazette-Mail.
In 32 years of outdoors writing, John has had articles published in Field & Stream, Outdoor Life, Bowhunter, North American Whitetail, Hatches and other publications. His works have earned more than 50 state, regional and national awards for writing and photography.
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This week’s column examines a relatively new phenomenon for the Kanawha and Ohio river valleys of West Virginia — bald eagle sightings:
In recent weeks I’ve heard from two readers who reported seeing bald eagles along the Kanawha and Ohio Rivers.
One, John Summers, sent proof: digital photos he’d taken through a spotting scope. Sure enough, there was an adult bald eagle, perched in a tree overlooking the Kanawha River near Winfield.
The other report came from long-time friend Kevin Cade. Kevin is an avid birder and amateur naturalist. His sighting took place in Mason County near the Ohio River’s Robert C. Byrd Locks and Dam.
This is good news. The more eagles we see in the Kanawha and Ohio valleys, the better the chance that a pair or two might decide to nest and rear their young here.
I can remember when West Virginia had no bald eagles – or at least no nesting pairs of the magnificent birds.
Then word came down that a pair of eagles had taken up residence in The Trough, a roadless canyon that straddles the border between Grant and Hardy counties. The birds obviously found the fishing good there, because as the years passed the number of eagles steadily grew.
The Trough is still Ground Zero for eagle sightings. I know, because I take a rail trip through the canyon each summer, and I’ve never failed to see at least three or four eagles along the way.
Interesting coincidence: Last year, as my wife, son and I drove up to make our annual Trough trip, we saw a bald eagle along Interstate 79 in Kanawha County. The bird had been feeding on roadkill, and as we approached it lifted off and flew directly over the car, no more than 25 yards away.
It was the first eagle my wife had ever seen close-up, and it thrilled her almost beyond words.
I could relate. I felt that way when I saw my first bald eagle, during a 1986 trout-fishing trip to West Yellowstone, Mont. The bird perched placidly on a deadfall in the middle of Earthquake Lake while I shot photos of it.
I saw my first West Virginia bald eagles three years later on a bird walk at Cabell County’s Green Bottom Wildlife Management Area. I had tagged along with the local Audubon Club chapter, and about halfway through the walk one of the members spied two eagles gliding high over some trees near the river.
As we watched, the eagles – both immature birds that hadn’t yet grown their distinctive white head and tail feathers – swooped toward each other, locked talons and cartwheeled through the air. We stood there, wide-eyed, mesmerized by the display.
I went to southeast Alaska later that spring, and eagles were so plentiful on Prince of Wales Island that fishing buddy Gene Cordell and I started calling them “Alaskan sparrows.”
I’ve since seen eagles while vacationing in Florida and Maryland, while fishing in Pennsylvania and Kentucky, while deer hunting in Jackson County, and while carrying out a story assignment in Summers County.
At least two nesting pairs have set up housekeeping near Hinton. Perhaps their offspring are the ones being seen now along the lower New River, the Kanawha and the Ohio.
One thing is for sure: Bald eagles are a far sight more abundant now than they’ve been during my lifetime, and I’m 55.
The banning of DDT certainly helped. DDT caused eagles and other birds of prey to become sterile or lay thin-shelled eggs. After DDT was banned in 1972, the nationwide eagle population rose from an estimated 791 breeding pairs in the lower 48 states to more than 10,000 pairs today. In 1997, federal wildlife officials removed bald eagles from the Endangered Species List.
With each passing year, the species’ comeback gains momentum. Long may it continue.