Bald eagle chicks with catfish. This photos was taken in the Chesapeake Bay or the James River. (Courtesy Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology / March 19, 2014)

JAMES CITY – Once hoping to remove a tree containing a bald eagle nest in order to reconfigure a hole on the Plantation golf course, Kingsmill Resort has withdrawn that application and is instead seeking to perform construction around it.

This spring, workers relocating the 18th hole on Kingsmill's Plantation Course noted a pair of eagles in the area building a nest. Construction halted, as Kingsmill owner Xanterra contracted with a private environmental consultant to conduct an aerial survey. That survey found the nest empty and incomplete. Xanterra marked off the tree and sent emails to residents about the finding, even setting up a Twitter account to follow activities.

Federal wildlife officials ruled that "this is a young, inexperienced eagle pair that has built a practice nest or have built a nest in a subpar area for rearing young," U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service spokeswoman Meagan Racey said.

Xanterra applied to take down the tree in a May 21 application to Fish & Wildlife, noting that it is "located directly in the planned renovation area and on the site of the future driveway of the home on Lot 5," referring to construction of Burwell's Bluff, a 31-home section of Kingsmill. "Without the removal of this tree, Xanterra will not be able to proceed with the project."

Xanterra argues in the application that, because Fish & Wildlife has deemed the tree to be a "subpar area for rearing young," forcing the eagles to find another tree will benefit the population and is "likely to provide a net benefit to eagles."

The application has stoked concern in the community, with residents emailing one another sightings of immature eagles, narratives of golfing near the 18th hole and photos of drones near osprey nests.

"It is very distressing to many residents who enjoy seeing eagles on their daily walks," said Michael McGurk, spokesman for resident group Kings-Mill United, which is unaffiliated with Kingsmill's version of a homeowners association. "It is difficult to reconcile the promises from the website and the emails to residents with the current actions by Xanterra."

McGurk noted that it has been more than a month since Xanterra applied to Fish & Wildlife to remove the nest, but no notification has been sent to residents. Both Gordon Taylor, Xanterra's vice president of Parks South, and Robin Carson, Kingsmill general manager, signed off on the application.

Carson said in an interview Tuesday that residents were not alerted to the application because there was no decision and because federal officials are leading management efforts. "We're careful to make sure what we post and say is in lockstep with U.S. Fish and Wildlife," she said, adding that Kingsmill planned to provide links through social media platforms to the new application this week.

"Once the application is approved, and we actually have a plan, we'll again tweet it out and put the information out that way," she said.

Carson also spoke with the Gazette in early May. At that time, she said resort staff was monitoring the nest daily and finding little activity. "There haven't been birds at that nest for days," she said.

According to Xanterra's application, a nest must be abandoned for at least 10 days prior to removal. Photos provided with the application show only sporadic activity, no nest-building, egg laying or incubation. "This permit would not result in the removal or killing of any adult eagles, nestlings or eggs," the application notes.

But that version is contested by nearby residents, including Lucinda Ritter, who lives across the street from the site and said she has seen eagles there for years.

"They use the nest. They are there every night," she said. "We have seen at least four eagles on a daily basis in the area. We live here. They (Xanterra personnel) do not. Every resident on this street sees them every day."

Kings-Mill United has also protested to Audubon International because Kingsmill's website lists the River, Plantation and Woods golf courses as Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuaries. "Natural habitats of bald eagles, hawks and other endangered birds are protected and not disturbed on the grounds," the website says.

The application prompted Sarah Nystrom, who handles eagle permits for Fish & Wildlife's Northeast Region, to visit Kingsmill in late July. She also met with McGurk and other residents concerned about the application.

"After meeting with them, we determined that they could instead apply for nest disturbance to cover the remaining work," Racey said. "They have modified the plans to leave the nest tree and as much of a buffer area as possible. The eagles have continued to tolerate activities on the golf course. The houses on either side of the tree, which the eagles started to build a nest in but never completed, will not be constructed until July, which will give us time to reassess with Xanterra should the eagles return and nest."

That is, the nest tree and a buffer will remain for now. Construction nearby will likely be allowed, but not during the breeding season, which begins again in December. Federal wildlife officials will re-assess the situation next July, after the birds have either returned or nested elsewhere.

Residents still have concerns. Chief among them, McGurk said, is that Xanterra is using a circular argument by degrading habitat and then, when the eagles respond by not nesting, pointing to the fact that they aren't nesting as justification for removing the nest tree.

Racey countered the worry. "The reality with this situation is that the eagles chose to begin a nest in a pretty heavily trafficked golf course area that doesn't really provide quality habitat. And their behavior has demonstrated a high level of tolerance for the existing activities around the nest."

Langley can be reached by phone at 757-345-2346.