A pair of Bald Eagles at Wilbur Lake is making history every time they carry a stick or branch to their chosen nesting site atop a steep cliff near Wilbur Dam.
The public has embraced the eagles, which represent the first known nesting attempt by Bald Eagles in Carter County. Birding experts who have watched and waited for Bald Eagle numbers to increase over the past few decades are not entirely surprised by the development.
“I am not surprised whatsoever,” explained Bristol birder Wallace Coffey. “We thought we could clearly see this explosion in the region for just over a year.”
In fact, Coffey and others made their predictions in posts made to Bristol Birds Net, a regional forum for reporting bird sightings and bird trends.
“We had reports of a nest at Austin Springs last year and thought we had found it, but the nest failed,” Coffey said.
A pair of eagles — very probably the same birds that tried in 2012 — are back at Boone Lake with a nest visible from the waterfront at Winged Deer Park in Johnson City.
Coffey noted that there have been reports of a nest at Roan Creek area in Johnson County.
“We have not yet been able to verify anyone who can point to a tree and nest and say I’ve seen eagles nesting in that nest with my own eyes,” he explained.
“We had a report last year of a nest near the Devil’s Looking Glass in Unicoi County on the Nolichucky River,” he said. “We searched and couldn’t find anything. However, we were searching right where the nest is now known to be — but it is not obvious and not close to the road — as I understand. They probably nested there last year.”
Coffey also suspected that Wilbur Lake was a likely future nesting location for Bald Eagles long before the current nesting pair was discovered.
“I went to see the TVA maintenance folks at Wilbur Dam last year and conducted a complete interview with them,” Coffey said. “They said they had never seen an eagle nest there and they thought the wintering eagles migrated out of the area to breed.”
Coffey also spoke to Brookie and Jean Potter, who live near Wilbur Lake. The Potters are also dedicated birders.
“They told us the same thing. Brookie was fairly well convinced there were no known eagles nesting at Wilbur. He has been watching for that for years.”
Something, however, began to change this past winter. The Potters, along with Tom McNeil, another Elizabethton birder, saw eagles at Wilbur Lake a lot this winter.
Then, Stanley and Carolyn Honeycutt, who are not birders but noticed the activity by the eagles, succeeded in locating this historic nest.
Considering all the clues pointing toward an eventual nesting, Coffey repeated that he is not surprised that nests have been found this year in Carter and Unicoi counties.
“It’s a very rewarding and pleasant development to all who have been hunting nests and studying eagles,” Coffey added.
He should know. He has more than a half-century of experience, much of it with raptors, including hawks, owls and eagles.
“I have spent a lifetime studying birds of prey any way I could,” Coffey said. “It is much of what birding has been about in my 55 years afield.”
One interesting twist with the Wilbur Lake eagles involves a third eagle in the vicinity. This bird is an immature one.
Some birders have even speculated that the younger bird is the offspring from an undetected nesting by the eagle pair.
Coffey said such speculation is perhaps not baseless.
“Two adults, with an immature hanging around, suggests that the adults nested in the area last year, and one of their two nestlings has survived to this point and is still following either their parents or other adult Bald Eagles around to share in their catches or to take advantage of their skills — maybe the way young ones learn quickly,” he said.
Coffey added that there is fairly good evidence that the local eagle population does not migrate but is sedentary here the year round.
“We have seen that happening this winter with a Sullivan County eagle pair nesting near Bluff City,” he said.
“Birder Susan Hubley has a nest almost in her backyard on John Sevier Reservoir in Hawkins County, and the two adults have had an immature bird with them,” Coffey said. “The adults will not have to chase them away. The adults get involved in spending a lot of time building nests and mating. They are laying eggs and incubating long hours all day.”
At some point, the younger eagles in these situations simply depart the nesting territory.
“We suspect the young bird just drifts away to get more food,” Coffey said. “The same thing has been going on in recent weeks at the nest on the Clinch River just upstream from Kyles Ford in Hancock County.”
Coffey is pleased that Bald Eagle numbers have surged in recent years.
“They were rare in winter when I first saw Bald Eagles at South Holston Lake in March 1961,” he said.
“They have only begun to be much more common in the last two or three years, as far as I can tell from records and Christmas Bird Count data,” Coffey said. “But records have been turning up at an increasing rate for about fives years or so.”
If nesting attempts in the region prove successful, those numbers will continue to rise.
As numbers increase, humans and eagles will learn to become good neighbors.
“One of our birders on Bristol-Birds wrote recently that there is a nest right in the heart of Pigeon Forge on a creek there and he was worried,” Coffey said. “He wanted to know if a fence should be built.”
Coffey doesn’t believe fences are necessary. Eagles and humans will come into contact as the population grows.
“We found that the people in the vicinity of the Bluff City nest didn’t worry about it,” Coffey noted.
“In order for eagles to become well established in the region and to be successful nesters as a local population, they must be able to make their own choices of nest sites and make it work on their own,” he said. “They are going to have to be successful adjusting to traffic, children, fishermen, birders.”
In the end, Coffey believes the decision rests with the eagles themselves.
“If the Bluff City birds did not want all that close proximity to homes and roads and such, then why did they build their nest there in the first place?” Coffey said.
The location didn’t prove at all detrimental to their efforts.
“They not only successfully fledged and raised two young there last year, but they are back nesting in the same tree and same nest this year and doing it again,” he said. “Last year’s commotion must not have been such a big problem for them.”
Coffey believes the Bald Eagle population is exploding locally.
“We first sensed that last year when the 2011 Christmas Bird Counts revealed an all-time record number of Bald Eagles in the area,” he said.
The data supports claims that Bald Eagles are becoming fairly common in the region.
“We were sure they were nesting, and we were right,” Coffey said. “The region probably has as many or more nests than we know about now and we just can’t find them. You’d probably be surprised at all the citizens out there who have nests they know about and believe they must be kept secret.”
Coffey noted that the first nest ever confirmed in the region was located in 2005 at Holston Army Ammunition Plant in Hawkins County on the Holston River.
“It has been successful every year since, except for one year when a storm blew the nest out of the tree,” he said. “The adults built again the following year and continued to be successful.”
Coffey said the first nest at South Holston Lake was found in mid-May 2009 and was the first Bald Eagle’s nest found in the Tennessee River drainage of Southwest Virginia. The bulky nest, like the one at Winged Deer Park and Boone Lake, was in a towering pine tree above the lake near the top of the ridge.
Eagles have proven resilient when faced with setbacks.
“The year before last, the South Holston Lake nest upstream from Avens Bridge in Washington County, Virginia, was blown out by a late-evening thunderstorm and both eaglets were killed,” Coffey said. “The adults built another nest and raised young.”
Just as they are resilient, eagles should also prove adaptable. Coffey has no doubt that eagles will succeed in their efforts.
Hiding or isolating their nests doesn’t seem to be a consideration for the eagles.
For instance, Coffey noted that one nest in the region was built right at the water’s edge and just across the river from a fairly well-traveled paved road and lots of river houses.
“Fishermen wade directly under the nest to fish in the Clinch River,” he said. “People float directly under the nest in rafts and kayaks and canoes. All kinds of people swim and play in the river just downstream from the nest a few yards.”
That same nest was visited by attendees at a family reunion.
“About 25 to 30 people walked up the road to see the nest,” Coffey said. “In a big tree directly over the road and not 40 feet up, a Bald Eagle sat preening while the entire group walked and stood under the nest taking photos, talking loudly and having a big time. The bird did not leave, but the family reunion went back down the road to their river cabin to finish their reunion.”
Coffey doesn’t spend too much time worrying about the eagles.
“Most people respect eagles,” he said.
“One person . . . told me you are far more likely to get shot for hurting one of those eagles than an eagle is to get shot by one of the locals and good ol’ boys,” he said.
The future of Bald Eagles in Northeast Tennessee looks like it is in for smoothly sailing.
“A nest in Chattanooga was built in a couple’s backyard,” Coffey said. “They frequently brought friends over for cookouts on their back deck so people could watch the adults feed the eaglets while the cookout folks were enjoying their dinner from the grill. So, why hide all these locations from birders or most anyone else?”
After all, the eagles aren’t hiding themselves away from prying eyes.
What better way to celebrate the success story of the Bald Eagle than to share in the unfolding drama as pairs throughout the region go about the age-old business of nesting, laying and incubating eggs, and rearing young that will one day thrill human onlookers watching as these majestic eagles unfold their wings for their first flight into freedom?