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Jay Smith: Eagles Are My Passion

By John Yevuta - | May 26, 2021

Jay Smith picture of Bald Eagle

Jay Smith roams our valleys and hills cataloging, protecting and photographing our growing eagle population. He is our peerless eagle scout. Jay lives in Proctor, Wes Virginia. He went to Magnolia high school. He is owner of Smith Photography and work as a volunteer for the WVDNR. Jay is married to Kathleen Smith.

Can you remember your earliest interest in birds?: My interest in birds came early in my life at 5 to 6 years old, roaming my grandparent’s 600 acre farm in Tyler County.

The hills, pastures, pond and creeks, held a wide variety of birds and wildlife.

Please share the evolution of your birding career. As a kid, I was always bringing abandoned eggs home to try to hatch them in my homemade incubator.

There were several birds that got their second chance hatching on Rebecca St. in New Martinsville.

Walk us through a typical day in the field. My typical day in the field during Bald Eagle nesting season usually is between 8 and 14 hours. I cover 6 counties in WV (the northern panhandle from Tyler County up to Hancock County) and 2 counties in Ohio (Monroe and Belmont counties). I have 17 nests at present that are active.

I usually spend 2 to 3 hours per nest every 1 to 2 weeks, more after hatching begins in mid-March. Hours of observation, from breeding activity/nest building in the beginning of February, to laying in mid-February, to hatching in mid-March, and then close monitoring of young eaglets (including head counts) to finally fledgling in mid-June to July. Binoculars, spotting scopes and long camera lenses are used for this to give the birds their space.

Eagles seem to be your focus. What are some facts about them most of us don’t know? Eagles are my passion. Some interesting facts about them are: They don’t get their white head and tail feathers until they are 5 years old. The females are on average about 20% larger than the males. Males and females have identical feather patterns and size is their only difference. It takes approximately 35 days for their eggs to hatch. They return to the same nest year after year if not disturbed. Eagle chicks are in the nest the longest time of any bird in WV (12 weeks), Eagles only use their nest during nesting season and a short time afterward. Only 50% of young eagles will survive their first year and this is part of the reason for the Bald Eagle’s slow recovery.

What can we do to ensure that eagles continue to thrive in our area? First and foremost, give them their space during nesting season (federal law requires 330 feet distance from an active nest). Eagles will abandon their nest, with eggs or chicks, if pressured. Please remember that NO picture is worth an abandoned nest.

What do you estimate the population of eagles is in the Ohio Valley? Are there particular places where they thrive? Our Ohio Valley population is growing. In my 6 WV counties and 2 Ohio counties, there are 17 documented active nests with more undocumented nests not yet reported. There are numerous immature eagles (1 to 4 years old) in our area, all with changing feather patterns. Eagles thrive near water (creeks, rivers and lakes) because their diet is about 90% fish, when available.

Your photographs are exceptional. How did you develop your talent? I am a self-taught photographer. My first good cameras were entry-level film cameras (Pentax then Nikon), in 1970. I’ve owned many cameras through the years, from film to digital. I own 100’s of photography books where I learned most of the technical information needed to do my craft. Hundreds of thousands of photos later, I’m still learning new technologies.

Any tips on photographing our flying friends? Tips for eagle photography are, most importantly, spending the hours in the field necessary to learn the behaviors of Bald Eagles. Also, don’t crowd them, use a good camera, and the best lenses you can afford. Flying eagles are fast. Use a high shutter speed (1/2000th to 1/2500th of a second), aperture settings open enough to have ample light, and set your camera to Auto-ISO. One more thing, use your camera manual and, most importantly, get out and SHOOT LOTS OF PICTURES! I shoot on average between 300-500 pictures each day I’m in the field.

If you had one place on earth to witness birds, where would it be? For Bald Eagles it would definitely be Haines, Alaska in November. The Chilkat River Valley has the largest concentration of Bald Eagles in North America (between 2000-4000 each fall). The Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve encompasses 49,320 acres where 3 rivers meet and don’t freeze in winter, and hold lots of salmon (their main diet in that location).

What are 3 books, birds and/or photography you would recommend? My suggestions are: #1. Sibley Guide to Birds, by David Sibley. The most comprehensive bird guide out there. #2. Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson. Still very relevant today, about saving the environment/planet/and all living things. #3. David Busch’s Guide to (your camera model) Digital SLR Photography, by David Busch. These guides are easy to understand. I buy one for every new camera body I purchase. You have to keep up with new technology.