Eagles thriving at Smith Mountain Lake

Eagle populations are stabilizing at the lake

SMITH MOUNTAIN LAKE, Va. – Eagles aren’t as rare as they once were, and people at Smith Mountain Lake are seeing more and more of them.

“Since the beginning of March, we've noticed a lot of activity around Carter Island. There's actually a nest there. (It) has a juvenile bald eagle on it today,” said Jared Vandergriff, a Virginia State Park Conservation Police officer.

Working with the nature interpreter and law enforcement officers at Smith Mountain Lake State Park, 10 News cruised to the spot they've been seeing the birds, on a pontoon boat that runs tours for the public starting after Memorial Day. 

Though Vandergriff has seen the eagles regularly since March, they seemed camera-shy during our visit. We managed several shots on video and some blurry still pictures as the adults flew away.  But the juvenile eagle -- born six to eight weeks ago -- while not as majestic, was much easier to photograph. 

The all-brown bird seemed much larger than one would expect, yet a close-up showed it still had a downy feather stuck to its beak.

“We've seen at least two different pairs in the area here around the state park. We did have one pair that was nesting inland near our visitor center,” said park nature interpreter Jet Lawler, referring to eagle activity in recent years around the park.

Rehabilitated eagles have been released at the lake, most recently in 2015, but no one knows if that bird is among the ones people have been seeing near the park.

There is no current research on the number of eagles living at Smith Mountain Lake.  The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries says there isn't as much food here as there is along Virginia's tidal rivers, where populations are the densest in North America. Their eagle biologist, Jeff Cooper, believes the lake would hold three to four pairs at most.

Cooper said the juvenile that’s in the nest right now was probably born in early March -- about the same time Vandergriff first noticed activity on the island, which has no one living on it.

With the birds no longer on the endangered species list, people are seeing more and more bald eagles. But it's still relatively rare to see one – and a treat for those who do.

“I love seeing them, I love watching them. There is a national bird. So anytime you get to take in their beauty, you know, it's certainly a good thing,” Vandergriff said.

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