Rob Pavey blogs green issues and the outdoors life

Where did all the eagles go? They might be right under our noses.

On paper, the annual mid-winter census of waterfowl and bald eagles at Thurmond Lake shows a decline in most species. In reality, I think they’re just a little harder to find this year.

The Jan. 7 study, which involved day-long patrols by 12 teams of spotters using boats and automobile routes, only yielded nine eagles, compared to 19 last winter.

Similarly, the numbers of the most common ducks and waterfowl were down significantly. Canada geese, for example, totaled 272 last week, compared to more than 800 last year. And spotters counted 3,606 coots—far fewer than last year.

Are there fewer ducks and eagles? I don’t think so.

Two factors that influence the survey are in play at the lake. The main one is water levels.

When the study was conducted in January 2009, the lake’s pool elevation was barely 316 feet above sea level—or 11 feet lower than it was last week. Such a change leaves much of the flooded timber and shallow waterfowl feeding areas high and dry, forcing the birds into open water at lower elevations. Eagles, which typically feed on coots and small waterfowl, were spending more of their hunting time over open water.

This year, with water levels hovering near 327, most creek drains and hardwood bottoms along the lake’s 1,200-mile shoreline have much more cover for waterfowl, making them harder to find. Several years of drought allowed plenty of low browse to emerge in areas that are now flooded. Such areas offer perfect places for ducks to feed and hide.

We also heard from several readers who report seeing plenty of eagles this winter in areas away from Thurmond Lake.

Mary Zielinski emailed to let us know the big birds have been spotted often in Columbia County near Bowen Pond off Stevens Creek Road. “Maybe there weren’t as many bald eagles at Thurmond Lake this year because they were elsewhere looking for meals,” she wrote.

Just two days before the Corps of Engineers’ study, multiple bald eagles were seen in her neighborhood.

“I live in Stevens Pointe and while on occasion we see a bald eagle way in the distance by using binoculars, that wasn’t the case this week,” she wrote. “A mature adult was flying low over Bowen Pond. Another full size but not yet in full bald-eagle color was in the tree next door. A third flew over the neighbor’s tree and immediately circled out of view. Between the pine branches, sun and short sighting of this third eagle, I was not able to discern the coloring. I only knew by wing span that it too was indeed another eagle.”

Other readers reported seeing eagles near Hammond’s Ferry in North Augusta, and along the Savannah River near the Augusta Canal headgates.

Eagles typically winter here in Georgia regardless of weather patterns, but it is very possible the cold winter may also have had some influence on the waterfowl seen at the lake.

Ken Boyd, the wildlife biologist for the Corps of Engineers’ office at Thurmond Lake, offered a breakdown of waterfowl counted during the study, which is part of the National Midwinter Bald Eagle & Waterfowl Survey conducted across the contiguous U.S. each year since 1984. Although it showed a decrease in some of the most common local species, it reflected an increase in some of the migratory ducks that may be moving through Georgia in greater numbers due to severe cold to the North.

Here are the final totals from last week’s census:
American Coots: 3606 (down from last year)
Green Wing Teal: 130  (up from last year)
Hooded Meganser: 100  (up from last year)
Lesser Scaup : 10  (up from last year)
Canada Geese: 272  (down from 2009)
Northern Pintail: 41  (not recorded in 200)
Ringneck: 100  (up from last year)
Bufflehead: 64  (up from last year)

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tbonitatibus 01/17/10 - 10:27 am
Yesterday we were visited by

Yesterday we were visited by a Bald Eagle at the Riverkeeper office in Downtown Augusta. It is the first time I have seen one in this part of the river, but there he was flying the channel and stopped to rest about 50 yards upstream from the levy break at East Boundry.

We have a wonderful pair of Osprey that live on the SC side of our stretch of river, and often get to see them diving for a meal very close to the boat ramp. We have multiple types of herron  and egrets, and are often visited by Mississippi Kites and a every once in a while are blessed with Swallow Tail Kites (far and away my favorite)

Below the lock and dam, Bald Eagles are a regular sight and the dinosaur looking wood storkes can sometime be seen in late Spring.

It has always amazed me how much diversity of bird life we have along the river in Downtown Augusta. It is worth a trip to the riverwalk or down to the boat house just to watch the bird life doing what it does best.

InMyHumbleOpinion 01/17/10 - 01:48 pm
Rob, You missed the impact


You missed the impact of hydrilla on bald eagle populations in Lake Thurmond.  Hydrilla support a particular kind of algae that supports a particular kind of bacteria that makes a neurotoxin that affects birds.  Coots love hydrilla, and this neurotoxin builds up in their systems, causing them to loose the ability to fly, and then to even float right side up.  Bald Eagles love to eat coots, and they become easy prey when under the influence.  In areas of lots of hydrilla, coots become the largest part of the Bald Eagle's diets and this neurotoxin builds up in their brains, eventually killling them.  This has led to decreased Bald Eagle populations in the lower portion of Lake Thurmond.  Fortunately, raising the lake level probably helped mitigate the effect for this year, as the hydrilla is (temporarily) submerged deeper and is a little harder for the coots to eat.

This is sufficient motivation in my mind for the Corps to mount a serious effort to eliminate hydrilla in our lake.


Rob Pavey 01/18/10 - 01:10 pm
IMHO, if you are new to the

IMHO, if you are new to the area, or a new reader of The Augusta Chroncile, I need to let you know we've covered that issue much more than you think. Not only was it discussed in our print story about the eagle census last week (there has already been an eagle death this winter), but The Augusta Chronicle has covered the AVM situation intensely for almost a decade now - you will find dozens of stories in our archives covering, among other things, the research under way at the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study Center in Athens, at Savannah River Ecology Lab and even at the US Fish & Wildlife Service research center in Wisconsin (in addition to studies at Clemson University). We were also one of the first newspapers in the nation to publish stories on the research linking hydrilla and algae with coots and eagle deaths - even before it was revealed in scientific journals. We've also reported extensively on the spread of hydrilla, and on the corps of engineers programs to budget more dollars for its control, and of course, more recently, we were the first to cover the quietly festering debate over whether to use grass carp to control hydrilla (South Carolina seems to think it's a good idea, but Georgia isn't so sure, and the Corps of Engineers doesnt want to be caught in the middle).

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