Bald eagles are found only in North America. In Washington state. According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, “The early summer bald eagle population when white settlers first arrived in Washington may have been around 8,800…Persecution, the cutting of forests, commercial exploitation of salmon runs, and finally the use of DDT reduced the state’s population to only 104 known breeding pairs by 1980…The population has recovered dramatically with the ban on DDT use after 1972 and increased protection for eagles and eagle habitat…In 2005, there were 840 occupied nests…If there is no decline in the number of nest sites, productivity, or survival, the population may stabilize around 6,000 eagles.” By 1963, with only 487 nesting pairs of bald eagles remaining, the species was in danger of extinction…As the dangers of DDT became known, in large part due to the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, the [EPA] took the historic and, at the time, controversial step of banning the use of DDT in the United States…Following enactment of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the Service listed the species in 1978 as endangered throughout the lower 48 states, except in Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin where it was designated as threatened…In July 1999, the Service proposed to remove the bald eagle from the list of threatened and endangered species.”
Bald Eagles on Whidbey Island
“Once listed as a federally endangered species, the bald eagle’s population rebound is evident on Whidbey, where an aerial survey conducted by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2005 revealed 47 nesting pairs of eagles on the island. Since that study, that number has risen to about 52 or 53 pairs, according to [Steve Ellis, former president of the Whidbey Audubon Society]…”On Whidbey, the sight of a bald eagle is often a daily occurrence for many residents.”
During the ten years I lived on Whidbey Island, I encountered dozens of Bald eagles. And even now that I live on Fidalgo Island, every week I’m likely to see several of these majestic birds, unmistakable as a bright white head atop a chocolate brown body. Smaller birds seem to love to pester eagles and hawks. I’ve learned from observing them that, like people, each eagle looks a little bit different. One of my favorite eagle encounters was of an adult eviscerating a cormorant on the edge of Cranberry Lake in Deception Pass State Park in November of 2014.
Skagit River Eagle Watchers
The Skagit Eagle Watchers are a group of volunteers who track eagles along the 55 mile corridor from Sedro Woolley to Newhalem and educate eagle enthusiasts within the 8 mile stretch along the Skagit River between Rockport and Marblemount. The organization publishes a weekly eagle count by zone from mid-December through January. Volunteers observed nearly 160 eagles during the December 31, 2015 count, “The Eagle Watchers Program is a joint partnership with the US Forest Service, Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, WA Department of Transportation, Rockport State Park and the Skagit River Bald Eagle Interpretive Center. Thanks to abundant runs of wild salmon, the Skagit River Watershed boasts one of the largest wintering populations of bald eagles in the lower 48 states…Since 1992 the Eagle Watchers program has played a vital role in protecting this species by managing the attention they attract.” Find a map of the best places to observe eagles at the Eagle Watcher’s and United States Department of Agriculture site.
Skagit River Eagle Bald Eagle Natural Area
On 30 December, 2015, I made the nearly 60 mile trip from Anacortes to the Skagit River Bald Eagle Natural Area. The first stop was Howard Miller Steelhead Park, at about 11:00 am. From the nearby bridge, I observed only one eagle perched in a tree nearby. The highlight was a first ever glimpse of a salmon carcass along the riverbed. Spawning salmon are reason eagles arrives in such great numbers along the Skagit River this time of year. A volunteer told me that the lack of eagles that day may have been due to the birds in flight taking advantage of the thermals.
The second stop was Milepost 100, where the biggest surprise was the elderly guy walking along Highway 20 carrying a PEACE sign. One eagle flew high in the sky. A Common merganser swam by, dipping her head underwater in search of food. Last stop of the day: Marblemount Fish Hatchery. Two persons carrying cameras walked along the narrow road as we entered the grounds and arrived at a large parking lot next to the hatchery. A dozen gulls waited on the metal gratings over fish filled tanks hoping to get past netting that protected the fish. There wasn’t an eagle in sight…sigh, so we left.
Oso Land Slide site
Returning home via Highway 530, I stopped at the location of the Oso Land Slide, “The site of the deadliest land slide in U.S. History. The SR 530 Flooding and Mudslide disaster occurred at 10:37 a.m. March 22, 2014. It took the lives of 43 people and injured 10 others, destroyed 36 homes and flooded 9 others as the slide material dammed the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River.” Signs posted along the side of that stretch of highway prohibited stopping, but we came upon a small pullout with several parked vehicles. An informational sign provided details about the disaster and rows of small trees decorated with mementos, one for each victim.
Skagit River Bald Eagle Natural Area 1 January, 2016
I am not a quitter (plus, I love birds), so I awoke at 7:00 am on the first day of the year to try again during a cold, clear day. En route, I noticed half a dozen hawks perched in trees. Ten Trumpeter swans flew overhead near Burlington. Everything was covered with a thin crunchy layer of frost. I spied the first Bald eagle of the day at MP 78, another at MP 79 and a third at MP 90 and finally arrived at At Howard Miller Steelhead Park. An eagle perched in a tree near the bridge-just like the last time. A pair of eagles watched the river from nearby. Tour boats awaited a trip along the river. The MP 100 stop, with one eagle, was disappointing, except for the PEACE sign guy. I encountered two fisherman who were trying to catch Steelhead in the nearby Cascade River. At Clark Creek, I observed a Common merganser and an American Dipper. Nearby, an adult eagle ate away at a fish carcass while four others looked on. A fish hatchery worker encouraged me to move closer, so I did. Before my frozen (fro the 25 degree temperature) fingers and toes compelled me to leave, I snapped one of my favorite shots of the day, of a sparrow on a grate above the hatchery.
On one last return trip that season. I’d seen: 3 eagles along the highway between Sedro HMSP, 3 at HMSP, 1 at MP 100, 6 at the fish hatchery, 6 near HMSP and a bonus one as I reached Fidalgo Island, for a total of 20 eagles in one day. My advice: arrive as close to sunrise as possible. Spend less time trying to photograph and more with binoculars because without a super mega telephoto lens with tripod, your eagles will likely look like tiny white specs. Dress for the weather. Be patient, but beware: eagle watching is addictive.