Watch eagles along the Skagit River

Featured image: Rafters put in for a bald eagle float tour at the Skagit River Bald Eagle Natural Area in Rockport, Washington. (photo by Cheryl Landes)

The morning fog hangs like a partially lowered curtain over the Skagit River, revealing only the water and the trees below. Standing on the edge of a sandbar in the middle of the river, a young bald eagle intently watches the steady current.

A few seconds later, he stretches his neck, plunges his head into the icy water, and pulls a salmon to shore. It all happens so quickly that even an experienced birdwatcher could miss this skillful fishing demonstration.

The eagle drops the salmon, anchors it with his sharp talons, tugs a chunk of pink flesh from its body with its beak, and begins to eat.

As he enjoys his meal, an adult bald eagle, perched atop a cottonwood across the river, notices the bonanza. She swoops toward him, shrieking. The youngster doesn’t want to defend his turf against an elder, so he flies away as she lands in the spot where he stood.

She starts munching on the salmon, unaware that two other hungry adult bald eagles are watching. Both attack her from opposite directions, but she retains control of the sandbar and salmon.

I’m watching this action from a pullout along the north side of the Skagit River on Washington State Highway 20, the North Cascades Highway. I’m close enough to see the eagles without binoculars, but they’re unconcerned about my presence. They’re focused on their fishing.

Every year, as many as 300 bald eagles winter at the Skagit River Bald Eagle Natural Area from Rockport to Marblemount. This 1,000-acre preserve was created in 1976 to protect these birds, when they were on the endangered species list. Nesting pairs slowly increased after DDT was banned in the 1960s, but their existence was threatened again when the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska killed an estimated 250 birds in 1989. Fortunately, the population rebounded, and in August 2007, they were removed from the endangered species list. They’re still protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Act.

Bald eagles begin migrating from Alaska as early as October and gather at the Skagit River from November through March to feed on the spawning salmon. They roost in large, open trees with stout horizontal limbs, which offer unobstructed views.

Of course, their roosting behavior also provides human spectators with great views. Their big, dark bodies—which weigh up to 14 pounds—and white heads and tail are recognized, even during flight. Wingspans reach eight feet for the female bald eagle, the largest of the species.

While the adults have distinct markings, the youngsters (or immature eagles), don’t. They develop their white crowns and tail feathers at age 5, so they’re often mistaken for the golden eagles that live year-round along the river.

During the peak migration, it isn’t unusual to see a dozen bald eagles perched on one tree. Their white heads resemble giant ornaments on a Christmas tree. Well-fed eagles supposedly perch on the lowest branches, content to pass the time until they’re hungry again.

Often bald eagles roost on the Highway 20 side of the river, but the sounds of the passing cars don’t disturb them.

In addition to bald and golden eagles, you might spot great blue herons; ospreys; loons; wood ducks; buffleheads; woodpeckers; and spotted, barn, and great-horned owls.

Several outfitters offer eagle watching float trips from December through February. Prices vary, depending on the length of the trip.

On the Skagit rafting trips, the put-in point (the term rafters use to indicate they are placing their rafts into the water) is at the entrance to the Skagit River Bald Eagle Natural Area in Marblemount. Pull-out is at Howard Miller Steelhead Park in Rockport.

Some of these outfitters also offer bald eagle watching float trips on the Nooksack River, another prime viewing spot during the migration. For more information, visit the websites above.

Whether driving or floating the river, always dress warmly in layers with rubber boots, raingear, hat, and gloves. Don’t forget your camera, binoculars, and a good bird book. Often you’ll get close-up views of eagles without the aid of binoculars, but it’s nice to have a set handy in case you want to look at birds farther away.

Learn more about the eagles and their habitat at the Skagit River Bald Eagle Interpretive Center at Howard Miller Steelhead Park. It’s open weekends in December and January from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Join a guide on an interpretive walk Saturdays at 11 a.m., followed by an educational presentation at the center at 1 p.m. Browse the arts and crafts in the nature store. All sales benefit the artists and the interpretive center.

On weekends in January, the Skagit Eagle Festival celebrates the migration with interpretive walks, tours, lectures, arts and crafts, food, and live music in Concrete, Rockport, and Marblemount. Not only will you learn more about the bald eagles, but also the other wildlife and their beautiful habitats along the river and the surrounding area. For more information, visit the Concrete Chamber of Commerce’s website, stop at the chamber’s office in the East Skagit County Resource Center at 45770 Main Street, or call (360) 853-8784.

The Skagit River Bald Eagle Natural Area is a 90-minute drive north of Seattle. Take I-5 North or South to exit 230, the Burlington/Anacortes/North Cascades Highway exit. Drive east on State Highway 20 (North Cascades Highway) for 40 miles to Rockport, the western edge of the preserve. You’ll see pullouts with views of the river on the right side of the road for the next eight miles to Marblemount.

If you want to extend your trip, check out these birdwatching sites closer to Anacortes.

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