ELKINS, W.Va. — As we floated down the upper stretch of the New River our fishing guide directed us to look at a dead tree snag on the far side of the river. On a perch in the highest branch was the unmistakable white head which revealed a bald eagle. The bird scanned the open water laid out before it looking for an easy meal. Moments later the wings flapped, it shoved off its perch, and snatched a small fish out of the water.
The impressive display was the first time I had ever witnessed a bald eagle in the wild. The thought of such a scene in real life would have been almost unthinkable 40 years ago. However, the rebound of eagles has become one of the great conservation success stories, not only in West Virginia, but across the United States.
“Bald eagles are undergoing a robust, long term recovery,” said Division of Natural Resources Biologist Rich Bailey. “Over the years they’re increasing and every year we see more and more of them, it seems like no matter where you are.”
Bailey is the one who keeps track of the eagle population in the state.
“We still track bald eagle nests. Believe it or not in the early 80’s we had a single bald eagle nest in the state,” he explained. “These days, if I had to guess we have anywhere from 100 to 200 in West Virginia. DNR monitors about 75 of those nests.”
The turnaround for the species is credited to a single action in the 1970’s, the banning of the pesticide DDT.
“Those impacts from DDT really did a number on eagles in the early 20th century,” said Bailey. “The built up levels of DDT would affect their egg shells and the eagles would sit on their eggs and break them. Once we stopped DDT usage, it almost immediately started turning itself around.”
Although you’re likely to see a bald eagle anywhere in West Virginia, certain parts of the state are better than others for a sighting. Along the water is where they like best.
“They love to be near water and one of the easiest places to go is down in Summers County in the Hinton area around Bluestone Lake,” Bailey said. “You can regularly see eagles there. If you’re driving Route 2 along the Ohio River you can frequently see eagles, but in other places in the state if you’re along Stonewall Jackson or Cheat Lake, you can definitely see them.”
The bald eagle is the easiest to spot and identify. The white head is a dead giveaway even to the most novice observer, but it’s not the only species of eagle in West Virginia. The golden eagle is also present, but sightings of those are much more limited because of their habits and haunts.
“The golden eagle is here almost exclusively in the winter time,” said Bailey. “They breed far to our north in Canada and come down here for the winter.”
Golden eagles also prefer heavily forested habitat like the Monongahela National Forest. Those thick forests make spotting a golden eagle more difficult to begin with and they tend to reside in areas much further out of the way of human contact in the highest reaches of our state for the brief time they are here.