Eagles in Virginia

state agencies consider eagle nesting sites when issuing permits for renewable energy projects
state agencies consider eagle nesting sites when issuing permits for renewable energy projects
Source: Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Environmental Data Mapper

Golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) migrate through Virginia, primarily along the edge of the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Front, and may winter there. Bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) nest and live all year within the state.1

Today, the Chesapeake Bay has the densest breeding population of bald eagle in the United States outside of Alaska. The Potomac River between the Route 301 bridge and Reagan National Airport is a "bald eagle concentration area," with plenty of fish to eat and shoreline trees that provide excellent habitat for nesting.2

On February 1, 1969, Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge was established to protect the habitat and eagles nesting along the Potomac River in Fairfax County. It was the first Federal refuge established for the protection of an endangered species. It includes the 207-acre tidal freshwater "Great Marsh" with a large Great Blue Heron rookery.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service facility was renamed Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge in 2006, to honor a woman who started as a "garden club housewife" and ended up as the "Eagle Lady." She was responsible for the peninsular ending up as a wildlife refuge instead of the proposed Kings Landing development, with 20,000 residents.3

The bald eagle population in the Lower 48 states has rebounded since being classified as an endangered species in 1967. The species was removed from the Threatened and Endangered Species list in 2007, though still receive special attention from the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. The two greatest threats to bald eagles in the 1960's were the loss of habitat and the impacts of DDT. Today, the greatest threat is chronic lead poisoning.

The lead is ingested when eagles feed on deer which have been killed by hunters. Lead bullet fragments are in the deer carcasses, and the eagles scavenge the remains during the winter when other food is scarce.

Though the lead poisoning reduces the population of bald eagles by about 4%, it is a sign of the success in the recovery of the species. As noted by a spokesperson for the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro:4

As populations grow, the suitable habitat for eagles near rivers is becoming more rare, so they're moving inland, and their diet is changing from being a majority of fish to a diet of scavenging and eating carcasses... As a result, we're seeing more cases of positive lead toxicity in their blood. A lead fragment even the size of a grain of rice is enough to kill an otherwise healthy bald eagle.

The successful population rebound of bald eagles along the Chesapeake Bay, now 3,000 pairs creating the largest concentration of eagles in the lower 48 states, may have peaked. All the suitable habitat is occupied during the breeding season. Nesting success has dropped, as adult males are forced to spend time defending the nest rather than gathering food.

By 2023, eagles were:5

...running out of room in the Bay region. The most notable consequence has been the growing population of so-called "floaters," breeding-age eagles of either sex with no territory of their own. The crowding has become so intense that researchers now believe that the floater population is six to eight times greater than the breeding population. Breeding males that do have nests and mates find themselves at near-constant threat of losing them to intruders.

Conserving Mason Neck



1. "Virginia Golden Eagle Research and Conservation," Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, https://dwr.virginia.gov/wildlife/birds/golden-eagle/ (last checked March 1, 2022)
2. "Bald Eagles Are Thriving but Face Challenges," Mount Vernon Gazette, March 10, 2022, http://www.mountvernongazette.com/news/2022/mar/10/bald-eagles-are-thriving-face-challenges/ (last checked April 15, 2022)
3. "Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge," US Fish and Wildlife Service, https://www.fws.gov/refuge/elizabeth-hartwell-mason-neck/about-us; Elizabeth Townsend Rieben, "Safe Landing: Elizabeth Hartwell's Role in Protecting Mason Neck, Virginia, and Its Eagles," Masters thesis at Virginia Tech, 2007, pp.7-8; "How a 'garden club housewife' saved a Northern Virginia bald eagle refuge," WTOP, March 22, 2022, https://wtop.com/fairfax-county/2022/03/how-a-garden-club-housewife-saved-a-northern-virginia-bald-eagle-refuge/ (last checked May 13, 2022)
4. "Eagles in D.C. area, nationwide have chronic lead poisoning, study finds," Washington Post, May 12, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2022/05/12/bald-golden-eagles-lead-poisoning-populations/; Vincent A. Slabe et al., "Demographic implications of lead poisoning for eagles across North America," Science, Volume 375, Issue 6582 (February 2022), https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abj3068 (last checked May 13, 2022)
5. "Too many eagles? Smaller broods point to no more vacancy along Chesapeake Bay," Bay Journal, April 4, 2023, https://www.bayjournal.com/news/wildlife_habitat/too-many-eagles-smaller-broods-point-to-no-more-vacancy-along-chesapeake-bay/article_fd5c1946-c9b0-11ed-bc88-8383868341ff.html (last checked April 11, 2023)

Habitats and Species
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