Bald eagles have made a miraculous comeback from the brink of extinction and while they’re no longer an endangered species, they’re still federally protected and are thriving on the many military bases along the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.
From Aberdeen Proving Ground in the upper part of the Bay to Joint Base Langley-Eustis in the lower, as well as the numerous installations in between, bald eagles have become a part of the landscape at these bases.
It’s all about the fish and protection
With so much activity on military installations, why are eagles nesting in these locations?
While military properties can be noisy and dangerous, many of the bases have expansive, remote areas where there is little to no human activity. There are also a number of protections being done to ensure the birds are safe.
The reason why eagles are nesting at these installations is about location.
In the areas of the Chesapeake Bay, these are waterfront properties and because eagles like to eat fish, they often to choose to live where there’s good fishing.
From north to south on the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, let’s follow the eagles.
Aberdeen Proving Ground
Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG), on the upper Bay, can be very noisy because of ordnance testing – the booms can be heard miles away. This doesn’t deter or seem to bother the very large number of eagles that make homes on the facility – studies have been done about it.
According to the study linked above from 1996, “Based on our finding that most eagles exhibited no activity following relatively loud noise events, we concluded that Bald Eagles at nests and roosts at APG do not show a significant behavioral reaction to weapons-testing noise. This conclusion is supported by the finding that sensitization to noise was apparently not occurring. Our finding that eagle nest success and productivity from 1990-95 was similar for APG and adjacent areas of Maryland suggests that weapons-testing noise did not influence overall reproductive performance of the nesting eagle population at APG.”
According to the U.S. Army , “On Jan. 10 (2021), a total of 201 bald eagles were counted along APG shorelines. Areas surveyed included Aberdeen peninsula, Spesutie Island, Edgewood peninsula, Graces Quarters, Carroll Island and Pooles Island.”
During the 2021 nesting season, the Environmental Division – Natural Resources surveyed 110 nests, of which 70-80 were expected to produce eaglets.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Chesapeake Bay Field Office, “During the post DDT era and subsequent recovery years that followed, bald eagles began to reoccupy forested habitats in the Chesapeake Bay region. Inclusive of the northern Bay, APG has become a unique bald eagle sanctuary because of its location to fresh water ecosystems and protected forested habitats. The installation now hosts the largest bald eagle nesting population on Department of Defense lands in the Chesapeake Bay and possibly, the nation.
The Army Garrison at the Aberdeen Proving including many other federal, state and private land owners, has been essential in recovery and long term protection of the species. As part of daily operations, the Army, in cooperation with the Chesapeake Bay Field Office, developed a Bald Eagle Management Plan requiring annual eagle nest monitoring each year. Assessments regarding eagle tolerance, acclimation and other behavioral interactions involving day-to-day military activities is could be applied toward long term management of bald eagles.”
These numbers are likely not surprising to the bald eagle enthusiasts that frequent Conowingo Dam, not far away APG on the Susquehanna River.
It should be noted some of the eagles that spend time on the upper reaches of the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania and New York will move down river as waters in the north start to ice over, which makes fishing more difficult or impossible for the birds.
In other words, these birds that are nesting or born at APG, or anywhere else, will move between or within states based on the availability of food and desirable space – see video from Quantico on tracking of eagles.
Naval Air Station Patuxent River
Moving south, the Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River also has eagle activity and they are working to keep people and birds safe. Its first eagle nest was documented in 2006.
Because bald eagles are federally protected, specifically by the Migratory Bird Treaty and Bald and Golden Eagle Protection acts, that means everyone, including the Department of Defense, has to abide by the laws.
Jim Swift, NAS Patuxent River Planning and Conservation Manager, explained, “The success of these efforts by one entity is difficult to measure, however, collectively the efforts have been very successful. “
In other words, protection efforts have worked.
“The numbers of bald eagles and the density of eagle nests in the Chesapeake Bay show the success of the laws that have been put into place,” stated Swift. “In the 1970s there were approximately 60 nesting pairs of eagles in the Chesapeake Bay and in 2020 there are nearly 3,000 nesting pairs.”
There are six bald eagle nests on the NAS Patuxent River complex, according to Swift.
“Much of the monitoring is done with wildlife biologists on staff, but the Navy does have a contract with the Center for Conservation Biology from the College of William and Mary to conduct nest monitoring and banding,” according to Swift.
Other work is done to protect eagles, humans and aircraft.
“One of the biggest concerns is the conflict between bald eagles and airplanes,” explained Swift. “When an eagle and an airplane collide it usually results in the death of the bird and severe and sometimes catastrophic damage to the airplane. So the Navy takes steps to reduce these collisions. This includes funding a project to trap and put GPS monitors on bald eagles that congregate on the installation during the months of September through November in an effort to determine why they are here, what they do when they are here and what the daily patterns are, all in an effort to reduce the bird/airplane conflict.”
Protecting the national symbol and other natural resources on military installations is a huge responsibility.
“The public has entrusted the land and natural resources on the installation to the Navy and it is the Navy’s responsibility to manage and conserve these resources the best way possible and still allow the Navy to complete its mission at Pax River,” said Swift. “The rebound of the bald eagle in the Chesapeake Bay and in other areas around the country, show how resilient these animals are and when given a healthy stable environment how they can thrive.
Moving south from the Patuxent is the Potomac River – it too has quite a few eagles on military installations in both Maryland and Virginia.
Fort Belvoir, in Virginia had quite the bird lover. Lt. Col. Jackson Miles Abbott (1920 – 1988) went to great lengths to document all birds he saw on the Army post and his worked reportedly helped in the recovery of bald eagles.
According to a checklist published by Fort Belvoir in 2018, “the original checklist version of this checklist (1988) was compiled from 45 years of his (Abbott’s) careful observations beginning 1941. LTC Abbott made important and lasting contributions to the field of ornithology, particularly his 30-year survey of the nesting success of the bald eagle. This survey proved invaluable in relating the eagle decline to the use of the pesticide dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) and having it played an important role in having it banned nationally. This aided in the return of the bald eagle as a year-round resident and breeding bird at Fort Belvoir.”
Currently it’s John Pilcicki, Fort’s Belvoir’s environmental protection specialist and wildlife biologist, working to ensure the bald eagles and all other wildlife are thriving on the installation – he’s been doing this job for quite a while.
“I’ve been here for almost 25 years,” said Pilcicki. “I monitor all the nests and I put closures up around the nests.”
The closures around the nests happen during nesting season.
Pilcicki goes even further than the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service guidelines which call for a 660-feet buffer during nesting season.
“We use a 750-feet buffer,” he said.
Pilcicki mentioned there are eagles on Fort Belvoir where’s there no activity and at least one in an area with a lot of activity – above a playground in a housing area.
“Right now I’m monitoring eight nesting territories,’ he said.
As more eagles arrived, Pilcicki has seen nesting territory decrease.
“I’ve seen their territory go from one mile down to like half a mile as the populations increased,” he said.
This can create territorial battles.
Being able to protect wildlife on a military installation, which sometimes calls for quick changes to plans for those working and training on Fort Belvoir, has been meaningful for Pilcicki.
“I have been really fortunate to work on an installation that has the foresight and ability to remain flexible,” he said.
Marine Corps Base Quantico
Marine Corps Base Quantico, on the Potomac River in Virginia, documented its first eagle nest in 1984. In 2015, they began a tagging and tracking program for the birds.
The video below shares some fascinating information that has come from the program.
Naval Support Activity Indian Head
Naval Support Activity Indian Head, also on the Potomac River, but in Maryland, is a popular eagle spot. It too can be noisy and dangerous because of explosive ordnance disposal training on the property – like other bases, work is being done to safeguard the birds.
Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren
Like the other Potomac River military installations, eagles seem to be quite comfortable at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren.
According to an article in the Southern Maryland Chronicle from 2021, ” This year, an annual aerial survey conducted by the College of William and Mary’s Center for Conservation Biology found 11 nests at NSF Dahlgren, producing an estimated 21 eaglets. At NSF Indian Head, the study found 14 active nests and an estimated 25 eaglets. The numbers are consistent with survey results from recent years that show a healthy, fully-recovered population.”
Another place that has seen eagles is one of the most secretive of all government-owned properties, but it’s also an ideal setting on the York River with plenty of fish. As for peaceful, that’s another question.
Camp Peary, colloquially referred to as “The Farm,” is a training facility, used by the Central and Defense Intelligence agencies – with its defensive driving course, landing strip and other noise-making activities, the eagles don’t seem to mind.
While there aren’t many photos of Camp Peary and there’s no government website for it, there are some with first-hand knowledge of the facility’s bald eagles.
Ed Clark, founder and president of the Wildlife Center of Virginia, a rehabilitation facility, remembers treating, then releasing one of Camp Peary’s eagles on the very secretive property in 2012.
Clark wrote, “They are not big on allowing people with cameras access to the property. I released the eagle in front of a big group of students, teachers and family members who live on the facility. The facility director was also there. When some of the kids wanted to have a photo with me, the Director would not allow it, because they did not want photos of family members taken.”
Fortunately, Camp Peary personnel shot some photos and shared them with the Wildlife Center of Virginia.
Naval Weapons Station Yorktown
Just down the York River from Camp Peary is the Naval Weapons Station (NWS) Yorktown, another popular eagle spot.
Full disclosure – I was stationed at NWS Yorktown in the late ’80s, before the comeback of the bald eagle.
“Naval Weapons Station Yorktown is home to multiple breeding pairs of bald eagles, which are protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act,” stated Tom Olexa, Natural Resources Manager for NWS Yorktown. “Because of these regulations, land use activities can be restricted if they risk disturbing eagle nests. Therefore, it is vital for our installation to know the location and status of each eagle nest.”
Eagles nest only during specific times of year – the timing of it slightly varies depending on location and climate . In Maryland and Virginia, eagle courtship, nest building and maintenance begins in November and December.
“During the months of December through February, Naval Weapons Station Yorktown’s Natural Resources staff conduct on the ground field reconnaissance surveys to monitor the presence of active bald eagle nests on our installation,” explained Olexa.
The commanding officer of NWS Yorktown is Capt. Chris Horgan.
“The bald eagles on the installation are prime examples of the many natural and wildlife resources the public trusts us to preserve,” explained Horgan. “We will always be mission-focused and support the fleet, fighters, and families that call Naval Weapons Station Yorktown home. Our installation is a special place with unique cultural, historical, and natural resources. Tom Olexa and his environmental team do a fantastic job integrating our preservation efforts into our base operations so we can be good stewards of the land while also supporting our great Navy.”
Joint Base Langley-Eustis
Moving down the Bay is Joint Base Langley-Eustis, which is two installations. Langley Air Force Base is in Hampton, near the mouth of the Chesapeake, while Fort Eustis is in Newport News, on the James River.
“On JBLE-Langley there is 1 active eagle nest on the main base and one on Air Force owned property at Big Bethel Reservoir,” explained Alicia Garcia, 633rd Civil Engineer Squadron natural resources program manager. “I believe there are around 16 nests on JBLE-Eustis since it borders the James River, which has the densest breeding bald eagle concentration within the Chesapeake Bay Region. Most of those nests are out in training areas where disturbance is generally pretty limited.”
Bird activity in any location that has aircraft activity can be fatal to both birds and humans.
At Joint Base Langley-Eustis, a juvenile eagle trapping project is looking at the viability of relocating birds away from aircraft areas.
“The translocation of juvenile birds is part of an ongoing research effort to determine if translocation is a viable strategy for conflict minimization between birds and aircraft,” stated Garcia. ” Bald eagles locally are doing really well but our skies are busy. There are dozens of municipal and military airfields within our local area. More eagles and lots of aircraft means that there’s more potential for bald eagles to be struck by aircraft. This is extremely dangerous for people and can cause millions of dollars in damage to aircraft. Unfortunately, these types of incidents are generally fatal for bald eagles, so finding ways to get eagles away from aircraft is necessary.”
Garcia continued, “Fortunately, JBLE has not had any such collisions with bald eagles and we are dedicated to doing everything we can to keep it that way. If translocation for juvenile birds proves to be an effective method for keeping bald eagles off of airfields then we may pursue it as a management option but ultimately, we have to develop the science in order to ensure our actions are guided by it.”
Garcia explained adult eagles aren’t relocated and it’s actually not the adults that are most likely to have aircraft collisions.
“As a point, we don’t translocate adults because the best time for trapping is in the winter when food is scarce,” she explained. “This is also when breeding pairs stake out territory locally and begin to lay eggs (Jan-Feb) so we don’t want to cause any unintended consequences which means we can only move birds without full adult plumage. This works out because previous research efforts have taught us that juvenile bald eagles are the most likely to be involved in collisions with aircraft because they are naïve to the dangers they present.”
Garcia also pointed out the adaptability of bald eagles in whatever surroundings they choose to nest in, but precautions are still taken to avoid aircraft collisions.
“If there is a successful brood in the spring, we avoid flying helicopters over the general area of the eagle nest on base,” she explained. “Otherwise, additional steps on JBLE-Langley haven’t been necessary. The nest we do have is far out in marsh habitat. Really, no one but myself and people in boats on the Back River venture out to this location. The nest at Bethel Reservoir is also behind a fence and inaccessible to the public. I will say locally though, bald eagles have proven to be very adaptable. I know of a nest a few miles away from JBLE-Langley, which is in a family’s front yard. The eagles don’t seem to mind the people in this location and the people who own the home really love the birds. My point is, the bald eagles have proven that they can habituate to people in their nesting territory.”
Protection of our national symbol
The comeback of the bald eagle from the brink of extinction to today has been nothing short of miraculous.
When bald eagles were being seen in greater numbers, the U.S. military, sometimes in partnership with other government agencies and environmental-related organizations, responded to ensure the birds are being safeguarded.
It might be a surprise to some that so bald eagles have chosen to make their homes on military bases, or that there are natural resources personnel on these facilities working to protect them.
“The fact that there are biologists and rare species on military bases is not often common knowledge,” said Garcia. “I am a prior service Marine. I was stationed on a base with a number of rare species but had no idea about the work the DoD does to conserve threatened or endangered species until later in life.”
With the bald eagle being the national symbol and one of freedom, there’s no shortage of symbolism in the symbol of freedom being completely at home on military bases.
For some additional symbolism – the Battle of Yorktown led to our freedom with the British surrender and the conclusion of the American Revolution – on that same battlefield today are two, active bald eagle nests.
Donna L. Cole is an award-winning investigative reporter, bird of prey rescuer and Navy veteran.
(Cover photo – U.S. Air Force Capt. Will Boss, center, Air Force Safety Center wildlife ecologist, holds a two-year-old bald eagle while Jeff Cooper, Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources biologist, places a hood over its head in Hampton, Va., Jan. 13, 2021. The hood makes the eagle more docile without harming it. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Chandler Baker.)