Raptors and more at the Blackwater Eagle Festival

MD-Eagle festival eagle and handler_3x

The Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper
Ranger Jessica Conley of Tuckahoe State Park holds one of the live eagles on display at the festival. This is the face an eagle makes when you say “Big smile!”

BLACKWATER NWR — The annual Eagle Festival at Blackwater Wildlife Refuge celebrated two birthdays this year — the 15th year for the Festival and the 112nd year birthday of the organization that made BNWR possible.

“March 14 is the birthday of the National Wildlife System,” Ray Paterra, Visitor Services manager at the Refuge told us, “our first refuge was started in 1903, it was part of an island off the east coast of Florida. So we do a lot of events that recognize the birth date of the system. Us being so highly populated with bald eagles, a lot of people come here this time of year to see eagles, or even earlier in the year, since the eagles come in January, February and March. So although it’s recognition of the birth of the refuge system, we also try to incorporate a species that this refuge is well known for, so a lot of focus is on the eagle.”

The Eagle Festival is an event that has grown in population and popularity over the years. “Our first festival was a lot smaller,” Mr. Paterra said. “It was in 2001, and we received special grant funding to conduct that event. After that we did it in the small visitor center with a tent outside, and then we added another tent, then a couple more tents. Then we moved down to our educational building a few years ago because the visitor center was being remodeled. Then we kind of spread it out and brought in a 40 X 60 tent, and an archery range, a BB gun range.”

This year, the weather conspired to limit participation at the Eagle Festival, when a cold rain blew in and put a wet damper on the day. Rain or shine, there were bird presentations in a large program tent, and an equally large activities tent worked on keeping the kids employed. But it was obvious that attendance was down.

“This year the numbers are going to be way down, but in years past we’ve had roughly 3,000 people come out to the event,” said Mr. Paterra. “With staff and volunteers it takes about 100 people to pull this off. The beautiful thing to the public is that everything other than the food is free of charge. So if you’re looking for something to do, I don’t care if you have six kids, all you have to do is load up the car and you can come out here and spend the whole day, doing eagle prowls, seeing live birds of prey in the presentation center, making a wren box — it’s just a great family-focused event. It’s early in the day, there’s no live bands, there’s no alcohol, the whole nine yards. This is just a way to get back out, get into nature, relax with your family. It’s a fun family activity that’s not going to cost you any money.”

As you stroll around the grounds at Blackwater, it’s easy to marvel at the sheer number of birds on the location, as if they know it’s a refuge, and they take full advantage of it. A flock of Tundra Swans flew in a populated the field next to the refuge. Canada geese came in and went out, along with various ducks. Turkey vultures soared high over the treeline, and of course it’s not at all uncommon to see eagles any day in Blackwater. We asked Ray Paterra why.

“We get a lot of birds from way up north. This is a better climate throughout the winter. It’s not balmy like Florida, but a lot of the time the water isn’t frozen over, so the food source is here. There’s also big trees and a general lack of disturbance.

“They migrate in and then nest, and once they’re done nesting and raising the young then they’ll depart. They’ll be leaving around April, but we maintain a concentration of eagles here. Year-round we have about 35 pair in this area. In the winter months our numbers go up, and we may have over 200 birds in the area.”

Visitors could join an “eagle prowl” to take a group trip to eagle nesting and viewing site, or see an eagle up close in the program tent, along with various raptors, including owls and peregrine falcons. The eagle prowls and birding expeditions were very popular, conducted from small busses donated from Pleasant Day that were outfitted with spotting scopes, binoculars and birding books. All you needed were legs and eyes!

Chuck Hurley, president of the Chicone Ruritan Club, who were providing food along with the Boy Scouts, was pleased with the event and the namesake bird. He echoed the thoughts of most of the attendees when he said, “The bald eagle is one of the best prizes our nation has. It is the symbol of our country.”

Inside the visitor center (where it was warm and dry!) there were presentations and lectures going on in the center auditorium, and Daniel Firehawk Abbott gave a fascinating demonstration on Native American tools and techniques right in the lobby of the visitor center.

There was so much to do at the Eagle Festival, it was easy to spend a whole day there and not get bored. The rain wasn’t even that much of an issue.

“The eagles don’t care about the rain,” Mr. Paterra told us. “They aren’t going anywhere. If you come with the right frame of mind, and a raincoat, this is the perfect event.”

Paul Clipper is the editor of the Dorchester Banner. He can be reached at pclipper@newszap.com.

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