By day’s end, the airborne teams had counted 18 eagles – two adults and 16 immature birds, said Army Corps of Engineers biologist Ken Boyd.
The numbers may seem encouraging, but odds are strong that many of those birds will die before warm weather returns next spring.
The silent, mysterious killer is a tiny algae bloom linked to hydrilla, an invasive aquatic weed that showed up at the lake in 1995.
Despite costly herbicide treatments, the initial 55-acre patch has expanded to 7,300 acres today along 400 miles of shoreline.
Its spread has created a cycle of death – known as avian vacuolar myelinopathy, or AVM – that is as sinister as a science fiction movie.
Hydrilla is a favored food for coots, which are eaten by bald eagles. The algae-born AVM creates lesions inside the brain that cause fatigue, disorientation and death.
The condition has also been confirmed in owls, Canada geese and ducks, which is why wildlife authorities want to prevent AVM from spreading to other lakes and rivers.
To date, 76 dead eagles have been recovered from Thurmond Lake, which is one of 17 waterways across the Southeast where AVM has emerged.
One possible solution is the use of grass carp that would reduce hydrilla. Such a step, however, is both costly and controversial, since it would add a large new species to the lake.
Scott Hyatt, Thurmond Lake’s project manager, cited a recent survey by the University of Georgia in which stakeholders in the region were supportive of stocking the carp. Such an action, he added, will require a formal environmental assessment for which fiscal 2014 funding has been requested, but not yet approved.
Even in a best-case scenario, it could take years before any results could be expected.
“Assuming that sterile grass carp is the corps’ preferred action, and assuming there’s money to move through the process, my rough estimate is 18 months to 2 years,” Hyatt said.
CORPS MONEY WOES: Speaking of corps budgets, there was more sobering news out of the Savannah District Office last week that includes more cuts and park closures along the Savannah River.
“We selected recreation areas for full or partial closures based on an analysis of our recreation program, which included visitation numbers, costs to operate and maintain parks, and the location of similar facilities,” the corps said in a statement.
Thurmond Lake will close four campgrounds: Raysville, Broad River, Clay Hill and Hesters Ferry.
Partial closures are also planned at Lake Springs Day Use Area, where three of six loops will be closed.
Mount Carmel Campground will close, leaving its boat ramp open, officials said, and Gill Point Day Use Area will close, also leaving its boat ramp open.
COLD WEATHER RABIES: The Columbia County Health Department warned Thursday that yet another raccoon has tested positive for rabies. The raccoon had come in contact with a dog near Thoroughbred Way and Lewiston Road in Grovetown – and the dog killed the raccoon.
Fortunately, the dog was current on its rabies vaccinations and did not have to be euthanized, said Pam Tucker, the county’s emergency and operations division director.