Eagles at Blackwater Refuge

by Jim Rapp

Naturalist Jim Rapp will tell us the story of Eagles their history and life at Blackwater Refuge near Cambridge, Maryland.

The Chesapeake marshes and forests of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge are internationally significant. One-third of Maryland's intact tidal wetlands are protected here, and in turn, these wetlands protect this region of Delmarva from storms and high tides. North of Florida, Blackwater has the greatest density of breeding Bald Eagles on the east coast. The refuge provided just that - a refuge - during the early days of this species' recovery, when many feared that our national symbol might become extinct. The protected land and water of Blackwater are also near the birthplace of Harriet Tubman, the "Moses of Her People" and one of our greatest American heroes.

Driving or cycling into Blackwater, you have as good a chance as any place on Delmarva or the East Coast of seeing Bald Eagles. You'll find them soaring and hunting over the marsh, or resting in the tall loblolly pine trees near the water. Mature birds look distinguished with their white head and tail feathers at the terminal ends of their dark chocolate-brown bodies. Female Bald Eagles may weigh 14 pounds and have a wingspan of 8 feet. Males are slightly smaller. Young birds are mostly dark brown until they are four to five years old and acquire their characteristic white heads and tails.

Bald Eagles hunt over the Chesapeake water and wetlands of Blackwater, where they can find their primary food source, fish. If fish are hard to find, eagles will also feed on ducks, muskrats, and turtles, and they'll even join local vultures picking at the carcass of a roadkill deer. If they can't find their own food, they'll steal fish caught by their distant cousin, the Osprey.

Bald Eagles mate for life, and their preferred nesting sites are the tops of the tallest loblolly pine trees. Nests made of sticks and marsh grass are added to each year, and may reach 10 feet across and weigh more than a ton. Bald Eagles raised at Blackwater will usually return to within 100 miles of the refuge when they've matured enough to raise young.

Breeding Bald Eagles are one of Delmarva's earliest nesters, and will typically lay one to three eggs as early as late January. The eggs hatch after about 35 days, and young eagles can be seen taking their first flights at Blackwater as early as May.

Although they primarily eat fish and dead animals, Bald Eagles were once considered a nuisance for killing chickens and other livestock. Early farmers would shoot these large predators to eliminate this perceived threat to their animals. The direct killing of Bald Eagles combined with the loss of tall trees for nesting certainly contributed to this species' early decline.

The Bald Eagle did receive some government protection from direct killing in 1940 when Congress passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act. Our national symbol first became associated with the newly formed USA when it landed on the Great Seal of the United States in 1782. Not long after the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress assigned the job of designing an official United States seal to three of our Founding Fathers. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams could not come to an agreement, however. There's a legend that Ben Franklin lobbied for the Wild Turkey over the Bald Eagle, but there is no evidence to support this story. That being said, we do know that Mr. Franklin referred to the Bald Eagle as "a bird of bad moral character" in a 1784 letter penned to his daughter.

After this first of several committees failed at the task, the job of designing the national seal was handed to the secretary of Congress, Charles Thomson. Mr. Thomson eventually chose the very American Bald Eagle for the design, and Congress adopted his recommendation on June 20, 1782. Today, the Bald Eagle is recognized worldwide as an American icon.

Despite its national significance and government protection, the Bald Eagle faced serious threats to its' survival shortly after World War II. Eagles and other wild birds came seriously close to extinction when they began eating prey contaminated with dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, more commonly known as DDT. This popular pesticide was first used to control malaria during the war, but was made available as an agricultural insecticide in the 1940s. DDT caused eagle eggshells to become very thin, causing the eggs to break during incubation.

Very few Bald Eagles were hatched during the decades when DDT was in use, and populations plummeted from around 100,000 nesting pairs in the 1800s to fewer than 400 in the 1960s. DDT was eventually banned in 1972, and the Bald Eagle was declared an endangered species in 1978. Breeding Bald Eagles, including those pairs found at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, started raising healthy young eaglets, and the species began to recover. By 1995, the Bald Eagle's federal status was changed from endangered to threatened, and in 2007 it was removed completely from the Endangered Species List.

While the Bald Eagle may be a symbol of American freedom, a true American hero is also connected to these Chesapeake forests and marshes. Araminta Ross, later known as Harriet Tubman, was born into slavery in 1822 on a plantation near the Blackwater River. In 1849, young Harriet ran away from slavery, not wanting to be sold to another master.

Fearing for the safety of her kin, Harriet Tubman came back many times in the ten years after her own escape to deliver her relatives and friends to freedom along the Underground Railroad. Over thirteen dangerous trips back to the Eastern Shore, Harriet Tubman rescued around 70 slaves. In her later years, she worked as a nurse, teacher, and spy for the United States Army. She died on March 10, 1913, and is buried in Auburn, New York.

100 years after her death, President Barack Obama issued a proclamation declaring the land where Harriet Tubman was born as a national monument. In 2014, the President authorized the creation of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park, which will preserve the landscape associated with Harriet Tubman's life on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Spend some time at Blackwater to look for soaring Bald Eagles and feel the soaring spirit of Harriet Tubman while you're traveling this very special area of Delmarva near Cambridge, Maryland.