Sunday, February 15, 2009

Where Eagles Soar

Photo by Bruce Trimble

One of Washington's most spectacular attractions is the wintering population of bald eagles along the Skagit River. Bald eagles, migrating from British Columbia, Alaska and the interior Northwest, come to the Skagit to feed on spawned chum salmon. Their harsh, creaking cackle splits the air as they go about the business of hunting for their food of prey.

Opportunities abound to view or photograph our majestic national symbol as they congregate along the banks of the Skagit River, typically December through February. Eastern Skagit County offers one of the largest wintering bald eagle populations in the lower 48 states. Peak counts have been estimated at over 500 birds.

The bald eagle’s name is really a misnomer considering this magnificent bird has a dome of bright white feathers. The word “bald” is simply an evolution of the Middle English “balled,” which meant “shining white.” The original name suggests the eagle’s description implied white feathers, rather than a lack of feathers.

For its size, the eagle is surprisingly light, yet it is very strong, strong enough to swoop down with incredible speed and carry away prey that weighs more than the bird does.

Bald eagle nests, which can weigh hundreds of pounds, are typically six feet wide and two to four feet tall. Nests are often located very high in a tall tree with a broken or deformed top, with a view of the water.

The nesting period in Washington begins around the last week of March to the first or second week of April. Although some eagles stay in the Upper Skagit River area, most find nesting sites around the shores of Puget Sound, San Juan Islands, or other coastal areas in Canada or Alaska.

The average adult bald eagle weighs nine pounds, with a height of three feet and a wing span of five- to seven-and-a-half feet. It is presumed that eagles mate for life. They are generally ready to mate at the age of five. Females lay two to four eggs and the thirty-five day incubation duties are shared by both female and male.

Eaglets are fed by their parents for the first six to seven weeks and then sporadically while they learn to feed themselves. By the time young eagles emerge from the nest they are almost as large as their parents. The familiar coloring of white head and tail, however, does not occur until the birds are four or five years of age. Juvenile birds are mostly brown and gray with mottling on the underside of their wings and a black tail with some gray.

The life span of an eagle is up to twenty years in the wild and forty years in captivity. The bald eagle was almost driven to extinction as the result of eggshell thinning caused by the pesticide DDT. DDT was banned in the 1970s and the eagles, as well as other birds of prey, have made an amazing comeback. Bald eagles are now protected by Federal law.

Having "eagle eyes" is a popular expression for someone who can see great distances. Few animals can match the eagles' ability to see distant objects; in fact, the eagle can see tiny detail three to four times farther than humans.

Eagle watching is a Northwest treasure. Join us! Good viewing can be found along Highway 20, at milepost 101, near Rockport.


Susan J Tweit said...

Hi, Mary,
Thanks for your lovely tribute to bald eagles! I remember going up to the Skagit once when we lived in Olympia to see the wintering eagles and being astonished by the sheer number. They could be called fishing eagles, since fish make up such a huge part of their diets, especially in winter. We see a handful of them here along the Arkansas River in winter, and in fact, there's usually one hanging out in a big cottonwood tree a couple of blocks from my house.

Page Lambert said...

Mary, I spent some wonderful time at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in Denver a few years ago researching the eagle population that winters there. And one of the great joys of the River Writing Journeys that I lead are the eagles hanging out in the cottonwoods (like
Susan's) along the water. As our rafts floated through Westwater Canyon last year, we watched a young fledging being schooled by an elder.

Jane Kirkpatrick said...

I loved reading about the eagle. They offer sightings along the Columbia River, too and we have them sometimes flying around our canyon (that is mostly populated with golden eagles so maybe they don't share rimrocks all that well.) The eagle carries great significant to Native Americans too as it is believed the eagle is the only bird able to fly between the spirit world and our own.
Several years ago I chose the eagle as a sign of God's intimate presence in my life. Whenever I see one I take it as a blessing -- so today, your words about the eagle was that blessing. Thanks, Mary. Jane Kirkpatrick

heidiwriter said...

Interesting details about our proud national bird! Great photo by Bruce too!