An increase in bald eagles signals the Potomac’s health is improving, but animal biodiversity is slower to rebuild

Three eaglets hatched on easement-protected Minnehaha Island this spring

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An afternoon hike along Potomac Heritage Trail at Riverbend Park in Great Falls, Virginia, provides opportunity to spot a symbol of national pride flying high and nurturing young.

To catch a glimpse, hike to the river’s edge and peer over the water to Minnehaha Island, a three-acre piece of land in the middle of the Potomac River. A pair of bald eagles raised three eaglets in a nest visible from shore this spring.

The island, like several others in the river, is protected by Potomac Conservancy with a conservation easement. The easement protects the island’s natural features from development in perpetuity, preserving critical wildlife habitat that benefits the national bird and many other animals.

The nest on Minnehaha Island is one of three eagle nests in the Great Falls area this year with hatchlings. The proximity of the nests tells naturalists that the area’s ecosystem is improving.

Wildlife enthusiasts watch another eagle nest on Watkins Island near Riverbend Park, too. “What’s surprising is their proximity to each other,” says Julie Gurnee, Riverbend Park naturalist. “This is much closer than we expected to see another eagle nest.”

For 20 years, wildlife specialists and national-park rangers monitored a lone pair of bald eagles nesting on Conn Island near Great Falls National Park. The isolated island nest is difficult to spot from trails along Potomac River shores.

Naturalists at parks near the confluence of the Potomac and Occoquan rivers note more eagles nesting, too.

Potomac Conservancy’s 2018 State of the Nation’s River report found that the Potomac River’s health is better than in recent decades. The report card gave the Potomac a B — up from a D in 2011.  The Potomac’s health is improving, which is helping to bring more eagles to our area, but overall animal biodiversity is not rebuilding as quickly.

“We hope these additional nests are indicators of increasing biodiversity of species and that means the ecosystem is healthier — birds, amphibians, and mammals — but this takes many years,” said Gurnee.

Animals that live at the edge of the woods, such as deer, fox, squirrels, thrive and are abundant, but deep-woods populations are not. Animals such as bears, mountain lions, wolves, and elk were eradicated.

“They were not compatible with people, and we eliminated them because those animals are thought to affect our livelihood,” said Alonso Abugattas of the Capital Naturalist website and educator at Northern Virginia parks. “We no longer have a deep forest.”

Deer populations are managed in many parks in Northern Virginia, which helps save understory growth — the natural, lush green floor beneath the tree canopy, an essential for biodiversity improvement. Bears are making a comeback because habitat is slowly recovering. Naturalists believe more conservation work and continuing education is necessary to restore biodiversity balance.

Conservation efforts work, but boosting biodiversity takes years. Long-term river and wildlife health depends on residents taking steps such as installing native plants and increasing natural stream buffers with deep roots to absorb herbicides, fertilizers, and road runoff, and reducing waste and lowering emissions and reliance on cars, said Gurnee and Abugattas.

More nests and more eagles provide a visual reminder of the public’s responsibility to wildlife, but conservation efforts start with changing human habits at home.


Author: Christina Tyler Wenks teaches journalism at George Mason University. She says, “Stories are everywhere.” An afternoon hike with her children piqued her insatiable curiosity and resulted in grabbing camera lenses, a dozen interviews, and deeper study into the area ecosystem. Find her at, on Facebook and Instagram at Christina Tyler Wenks and on Twitter at @musikfrau.


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