Eaglets’ landing: Nest could slow preservation development

Bald eagles have been nesting on Lickinghole Creek Basin for the past few years. Photo by Marshall Faitich Bald eagles have been nesting on Lickinghole Creek Basin for the past few years. Photo by Marshall Faitich

When David Mitchell bought 120 acres 10 years ago off U.S. 250 in Crozet, he wanted to maintain much of its rural character and planned a subdivision with 13 clustered homes, with his own on a 60-acre preservation tract on the banks of Lickinghole Creek Basin.

But he wasn’t the only one who found the spot appealing. A pair of bald eagles liked the location as well, and built a nest on the reservoir before Mitchell could break ground. Now his plans for Fair Hill are going to have to accommodate the formerly endangered birds and their two eaglets.

Mitchell says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department contacted him about the nest and he will be meeting with that agency along with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Because while bald eagles were removed from the Endangered Species Act in 2007, they’re still protected under federal law, which prohibits disturbance of their nests during their mid-December to mid-June breeding season, according to Bryan Watts, director for the Center for Conservation Biology.

The center maintains a bald eagle nest locator, and tracks more than 1,000 pairs found in the tidal region of the Chesapeake. “The population size is much smaller in the Piedmont and mountains,” says Watts.

Since the 1970s, when the state had 20 pairs of bald eagles, Virginia now has a “robust” population of eagles that nest in residential neighborhoods, he says. An isolated pair in a rural area “would be more affected by development.”

Federal regulations require a 330-foot buffer around a nest, and a secondary 660-foot buffer. How that will affect Mitchell, whose land is in growth-area Crozet, has not yet been determined.

When Mitchell first spoke to C-VILLE April 10, he said the tree with the nest would not be cut down and in fact was on land that belongs to Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority. He first saw an eagle about seven years ago, he says, and he believed the nest belonged to a single raptor—until he spotted an eaglet, “about the size of a chicken,” April 20.

Other birders have been aware of the nest. “When I was there in February an eagle was in it, and it appeared to have at least one chick,” says Dan Bieker, PVCC adjunct natural sciences professor. He estimates the nest has been there at least three years and before that, there was a nest below one of the houses in a neighboring subdivision. “It was blown apart by a storm,” he says.

Mitchell’s Fair Hill land is near the thick of Crozet development. It’s beside Foxchase, Cory Farms is west of that and Western Ridge is on Lickinghole Creek’s north side.

Mitchell says he would have preferred that whoever notified authorities had called him directly “rather than ratting me out to the federal government.” He has county approval for the project, and the 60-acre tract he plans to live on will have a conservation easement. “We’re ready to start pushing dirt in six to eight months,” he says.

He’s frustrated about possible restrictions on the use of his land, for which he paid $3.8 million in 2006, according to county records, because “a bird put a nest on my property,” and he says it could have a “potentially devastating” economic impact to him and his family.

“We will abide by the protections required,” he says, but adds, “If the nest was on the property when I bought it, I wouldn’t have bought it.”

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