by Leif Hansen December 12th, 2011
Starting this coming weekend of December 17 and 18 and through January 29, visitors can again witness one of the largest wintering populations of bald eagles in the lower 48 states descending upon the Skagit River’s supply of salmon. Providing assistance will be volunteers from the Skagit Eagle Watchers Program hosted by the US Forest Service. Three viewing stations with off-highway parking along North Cascades Highway 20 provide spotting scopes and binoculars to help you see the birds up close, at Howard Miller Steelhead Park in Rockport, Sutter Creek Rest area (milepost 100 on Highway 20) and the Marblemount Fish Hatchery. Look for the yellow signs. Beforehand, you can view a special map which shows the sites and get background on Skagit River wildlife. Call 360-856-5700 for more information.
Removal from Endangered Species List
In 2007, the bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list in the lower 48 states. According to a national bald eagle survey conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, breeding pairs of eagles in the lower 48 have continuously increased from 1963 to 2006. The same study showed an increase in breeding pairs in the state of Washington from 398 in 1990 to 848 in 2006.
Resting in Washington, Nesting in Alaska and Northern Canada
The migratory eagles are coming to the Skagit River from as far away as Alaska and Northern Canada. “During the peak times of the winter you could be looking up and see several hundred eagles in a single day,” says Forest Technician and Eagle Watchers Program Field Coordinator, Tanya Kitterman. “Normally we count 300 [eagles] a day on average. It’s fun to go out every week to the same places and see the eagles and what they are doing. There was one day we saw 700 eagles.”
Northwest Salmon; Vital to Bald Eagles in Western WA
Nestled in the Mt. Baker- Snoqualmie National Forest, the Skagit River is the only river system in Washington to host all five native salmon species. Kitterman said, “The eagles that we’re looking at in our program are migratory and are coming down to the Skagit to feed on salmon in the winter time. The eagles aren’t nesting here, they’re nesting in Northern Canada and Alaska and they’re coming down here specifically for the chum run that we have in the Skagit River.”
Kitterman is unsure what this year holds. “Chum numbers are low this year and we don’t know how many eagles are going to show up.”
Human activity can also play a factor in the number of eagles in the area. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, bald eagles can be deterred by pesticides, interference with feeding patterns at gravel bars, and other human disruptions. However, the eagles in Washington are usually non-nesting and have grown accustomed to a certain amount of respectful human presence. Kitterman said, “the eagles that are down here are kind of used to being around people. We teach people to not approach the gravel bars while they’re feeding.”
Last season alone there were 5,525 visitors that came to see the migratory eagles along the Skagit; and 7,200 visitors in 2009-2010.