Painful tutorials on the lake

Published 10:15 pm Tuesday, January 22, 2019

By Biff and Susan Andrews

We have a mature bald eagle and three very large young’uns on our lake. Usually eagles have only two. They come and go. About three years ago we had a mom and one chick — also unusual for the same reason. Back then, the mom was trying to teach the chick to land high in a tree, compose itself, then attack down into the lake. The results were comical. We watched transfixed for over an hour as the chick slipped, slid, fell, but slowly learned. The mom, au contraire, was regal enough to model for the national emblem. We kept seeing them off and on for a month or so, but no more landing tutorials.

Until the last few days with the new brood. This time, the lesson is on using the talons to grab fish out of the lake. Let’s set the scene: We have lots of waterbirds in our lake — geese, cormorants, dabbling ducks, etc. The eagles seemed to follow where the cormorants were fishing. The mom would swoop and snatch and come up with a fish. In perfect order, the three chicks (if you can call a bird that big a chick) would follow the same flight path and make their snatch — only to come up empty. We watched about three rounds of this, and then they moved on down the lake. Susan was walking our dog Poot down to the lake during one such tutorial and had a front-row view. Young eagles are impressive birds. It’s good to see them back.

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A brief history tutorial: The bald eagle, our national bird (despite what you may have heard about Ben Franklin’s turkey), nearly became extinct back in the mid-20th century, largely due to the use of the pesticide DDT. When that substance was banned through the efforts of ecologists, environmentalists and naturalists, the birds staged a remarkable comeback. They were taken off the endangered species list. By the turn of the century, Hog Island Wildfowl Refuge in Surry had dozens of active nests every year. The Rappahannock River people ran eagle watching and winery tours. Everybody got to see big white heads and tails.

But we’re in a new era. The current administration is relaxing protections on air and water standards. The most recent report on the health of the Chesapeake says it’s declining — after years of improvement. The eagle population — so recently rescued — is or soon will be under siege once again.

“Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” Let’s protect our air and water from chemicals. Let’s not use sonic blasts to detect oil, then drill to cash in on it (just because some western EPA guy friendly to Big Oil says we can). Remember the Deepwater Horizon? Surely we’ve learned our lessons — our tutorials — from the eagles of 1960. Not how to land or how to snatch, but how not to hurt nature through pollution. Let’s learn from history.

Remember Kepone?


Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at