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Monday, January 7, 2013

Skagit River Eagles

Before heading home to San Juan Island, we made one last side trip up the Skagit River valley where the annual bald eagle festival goes on for the month of January. Every year from December-February bald eagles congregate along the Skagit and other nearby rivers to feed on spawned out salmon, creating the densest congregation of bald eagles in the Lower 48. I've been wanting to check it out for years, and decided I was finally going to make it happen. Since the eagles tend to hang out along the river, the best way to see them is from the water, so we signed up to do a drift boat tour down the nine miles of the Skagit River from Marblemount to Rockport. It was a crisp 36 degrees as we gathered by the boats. A steady drizzle fell, but the patches of fog were lifting off the river to reveal the snow dusted hills on either side of the river valley.

Drift boat watching a bald eagle on the Skagit River
During the first half of our trip we actually didn't see all that many eagles - maybe ten or so over the first couple miles. Eagle numbers apparently peaked this year in late December and have been rapidly falling since then. Even at their peak, they only had about half as many birds as last year. Getting spoiled by our booming bald eagle population in the San Juan Islands, I wasn't that impressed. Most of our views were of single birds high up in the trees, silhouetted against the sky.

We got out on a sand bar by a newly constructed beaver dam where salmon carcasses littered the beach, the bony remnants picked clean by the eagles and other creatures. Below the beaver dam several salmon redds were visible, where males had cleared out an area for the females to lay their eggs. They're visible here as the gray patches in the middle of the water:

For the second half of the trip, the eagle numbers started to really pick up. Some of the eagles were lower down, providing some better photographing opporunities. It was especially cool when a bird was perched on a branch overhanging the river and we were able to drift right under it, giving us a unique angle as we looked straight up at the eagle:


There were some much denser congregations of eagles. This stand of trees had nine eagles in it, seven of which are visible here:

In this same stretch of river I got my prize shot of the day:

This one isn't so bad either:

It's a pretty stunning landscape for photography, even on a gray dreary day. I wasn't the only photographer out to enjoy the eagles:

While I was a little underwhelmed from what I've seen and heard of other's trips to see the Skagit eagles, by the end of the trip we had seen about 70 eagles, which is still pretty amazing. I certainly haven't ever seen that many eagles in one day before.

The timing was perfect for us to catch the mid-afternoon ferry back to the island, which meant I got to bird a little bit from the ferry before it got dark. I was able to add the four expected species to the year list this way: pelagic cormorant (84), common murre (85), pigeon guillemot (86), and rhinoceros auklet (87). While it's not a given, I think this puts me in pretty good shape to reach 100 species before the month's end. We shall see!

1 comment:

Lancashire and Lakeland Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

Thought I was catching up for a minute there....

Your 9 eagles in one tree is about 5% of our total sea eagle (nearest equivalent to B/E) population. They used to be far more numerous and widespread but still suffer horreendous (illegal) persecution.