Where eagles come to roost
Caledon Natural Areas wetlands a training ground for largest concentration of the raptors on East Coast
Every year from April 1 until Sept. 30, the longest trail at Caledon Natural Area is closed to hikers.
But that just may be the best time to visit.
The area along Boyd’s Hole Trail is sensitive habitat for American bald eagles. While the trail is closed, the eagles are in high gear, teaching their young to fish and hunt along the southern banks of the Potomac River—and park naturalists are on hand to help you experience them. Twice daily, on most weekends between June and mid-September, you can see this protected area by joining guided tours that not only enrich your understanding of the eagles but shuttle you to the Potomac shoreline to watch the birds soar, perch and fish along the river.
Caledon Natural Area, a member of the Chesapeake Gateways Network, is located in King George County on Virginia’s Northern Neck. It covers more than 2,500 acres of woods, wetlands and meadows that hug 3.5 miles of Potomac shoreline.
When the land was donated to Virginia in 1974, state managers envisioned a full-featured state park with camping, boating and other recreation. But before those plans took shape, an observant neighbor suspected that Caledon was an important site for the endangered eagle population. He contacted the area’s leading eagle ornithologist, Mitchel Byrd. Their research revealed that a significant number of the raptors gathered at Caledon each summer to hunt and to train their young.
“They took the information to Richmond,” said park manager Nina Cox. “The governor, Charles Robb, directed that a task force be formed to study the land and recommend the best management plan for its use. The task force recommended that Caledon become a natural area, rather than a state park, with a conservative management plan.”
And so Caledon has remained an unspoiled oasis for eagles as well as many other birds and varieties of wildlife. The land is managed in three zones, with varying degrees of public access designed for habitat protection. A “no boating” zone extends into the Potomac River 1,000 feet from Caledon’s shoreline. The park includes a visitor center, picnic areas and six walking trails. Most of the trails are between 0.9 mile to 1.1 miles long, creating longer paths through a series of intersecting loops. Boyd’s Hole Trail follows a separate, 3.5-mile course to the river.
Today, as the eagle population edges toward recovery, Caledon and the surrounding area remain the summer home for one of the largest concentrations of eagles on the East Coast. Bird counts have turned up as many as 60 eagles at the Caledon site alone.
While there are a few active nests at Caledon, nesting isn’t the greatest reason for the park’s significance.
“We do have eagles nesting in the natural area, but the land and shoreline are more important to eagles as a summer roosting site,” Cox explained.
Eagles are drawn to Caledon because its shoreline cups a fairly protected, shallow section of the river. To an eagle, this makes good fishing. Eagles prefer shallow water because it brings fish closer to the surface—a much better target for eagles, which swoop low to snatch their prey rather than diving below the water.
But most of the fish that eagles consume is scavenged. Caledon has its advantages here, too. The bend in the river, paired with obliging winds and currents, washes a steady supply of dead fish onto Caledon’s shores.
Combined with protective wetlands and large perching trees, it’s an ideal training grounds for immature eagles.
“Some birds leave their young as soon as they learn to fly. But eagles stay with their young for about two months after their first flight,” Cox said. “They come here to teach them to hunt.”
Displays at the Caledon visitor center highlight the differences between immature eagles and adults. Two preserved eagles stand in a central display case, about a year apart in age. Their size and shape are similar, but the coloring is quite different. The younger bird is almost entirely brown—including its head feathers, beak, feet and eyes.
“A lot of things happen when they hit puberty,” Cox said.
When they are 4–5 years old, eagles grow white tail and head feathers. The color of their beaks, feet, and even their eyes changes from brown to gold. The transformation leads to the classic look of the American bald eagle, shown in stunning form by the adult eagle in the display.
Most eagles mate for the first time around this age, building the largest nests of any North American bird.
“They mate for life,” Cox said. “But there’s an out clause. If they can’t raise their young successfully, then after a year or two they go their separate ways.”
Humans, as well as eagles, have left their mark on the Caledon Natural Area.
Caledon was originally home to the Alexander family, which founded the city of Alexandria, VA. John Alexander emigrated from Scotland in the 1600s and purchased the Caledon tract in 1659.
Remarkably, the land remained with Alexander’s descendants for nine generations. By the 1800s, it was called “Caledon” after the immense Scottish forest known as Caledonia.
By the 20th century, ownership passed to Lewis Egerton Smoot, who took up full-time residence at Caledon with his wife, Ann Hewitt Smoot. Smoot owned a sand and gravel business that helped to build the Pentagon and the British embassy in Washington, D.C.
During his ownership, Smoot stopped the farming activities at Caledon. He passed away in 1962, and his widow knew that he had not wanted the land carved into parcels. She researched her options, ultimately donating Caledon in 1974 to Virginia—the largest land gift the commonwealth had ever received.
The terrain that transferred to the state, though, had been altered many times. For centuries, farming had been a top priority. Forests were cleared and wetlands drained by culverts and ditches, some of which can still be seen today. There was a wharf and a rolling road that carried tobacco to the ships.
Various family holdings sprouted individual farming endeavors, and small tenant communities popped up at different locations.
At one point, Caledon played host to as many as 12 plantations.
“They say you could see all the way from the house to the river,” Cox said, gesturing toward the thick woods at the rear of the Smoot family house.
The trees have returned. Despite the massive clearings of earlier times, Caledon includes towering, old growth hardwoods that are 150 years old, earning the park recognition as a National Natural Landmark. Some of the oaks and tulip poplars are 5–6 feet in diameter.
Recently, the forest felt the effects of Hurricane Isabel, which toppled and weakened many of its trees.
“After the hurricane, the park closed for four months,” Cox said. “We salvaged the timber that came down in areas considered to have a high risk for fire because of the excessive load of downed trees.
“The trees were really stressed and the root systems pulled up. Even now, storms or high winds still bring down a few more trees. It will be years until it all plays out, but the forest will come back. It will be interesting to watch.”
Altered wetlands are also returning to their natural state, as park managers slowly reverse the effects of man-made draining systems.
“We’ve worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore the forest hydrology by installing berms in the ditches and creating spillways to slow the water down,” Cox said. “We’re restoring the lowland forest floor to its natural state, how it looked 200 years ago.”
One especially large area upriver from Boyd’s Hole was the focus of a partnership between Ducks Unlimited, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. The renewed wetland area is flush with wildlife, anchored by a dramatic line of tree snags that are favorite spots for the eagles.
Jones’ Pond is also the site of an earlier wetland, which Smoot dredged and stocked for fishing. Here, resource managers opted to maintain the area as a shallow freshwater pond, encouraging native submerged aquatic vegetation to support ducks and geese. The waterfowl, in turn, provide another food source for the eagles.
Coaxing the land into optimal eagle habitat is vital, because eagles follow their food source. And, while the Potomac’s eagle population remains steady, Cox says the numbers aren’t increasing as they are along the James and the Rappahannock.
“It could be a nutrient imbalance, or chemical pollution, or maybe the fish aren’t as abundant,” Cox said. “But I think it’s more likely the amount of human activity on the river.”
Habitat is also crucial for the long-term survival of the bald eagle.
In 1995, bald eagles were downgraded from an endangered species to a threatened species. Good news for the eagles, but their future is far from secure. “The numbers are where they need to be,” Cox explained. “But we haven’t met the criteria for preserving habitat. That’s part of the reason they haven’t been completely de-listed.”
And that’s one more reason why places like Caledon should be appreciated and preserved.
Caledon Natural Area Caledon Natural Area is located in King George County, VA, 20 miles east of Fredericksburg on Route 218 between Fairview Beach and Owens.
Caledon’s visitors center is open noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays in April, May September and October; and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Eagle Tours are scheduled at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, June 11 through Aug. 28; and at 10 a.m. Sept. 3, 10 &17. The fee for the tour is $6 per person; children under 6 are free. Because space is limited, reservations are required.
Caledon offers six hiking trails, five of which are open 8 a.m. to sunset year-round. Boyd’s Hole Trail is closed April through September, except for the guided eagle tours.
Caledon is host to a variety of programs and special events, including beach sweeps, birding, wetlands discovery and fossil hunts. For information, contact the park at 540-663-3861, or Caledon Natural Area, 11617 Caledon Road, King George, VA 22485 or www.dcr.state.va.us/parks/caledon
For learn about other sites in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, visit www.baygateways.net
Eagles on the Chesapeake
- When Europeans first arrived on the Chesapeake Bay, there were an estimated 3,000 pairs of bald eagles along its shorelines and rivers.
- Over time, increasing settlements along shorelines reduced the eagles’ habitat.
- During the 1940s and 1950s, the massive use of the pesticide DDT begins to enter the eagles’ food chain and decimates their population.
- In 1967, DDT is banned.
- In 1978, the bald eagle is added to the endangered species list. Only 70 pairs of eagles remain on the Bay.
- Eagles begin a slow recovery.
- In 1995, eagles are downgraded from an endangered species to a threatened species.
- By 1998, the Bay area is home to approximately 500 pairs of eagles.
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