Even though the bald eagle is a year-round resident of Northwest Washington, early winter offers prime viewing opportunities in Whatcom and Skagit counties.
"They're here for the fish," said Kelly Reagan, education coordinator at the Skagit River Bald Eagle Interpretive Center in Rockport, a community along the North Cascades Highway where an annual festival celebrates the majestic raptor - America's national symbol.
Early winter is typically the end of fall salmon runs on rivers in Whatcom and Skagit counties. Eagles prowl the airways and lurk in the trees above local rivers and streams, looking for dead and dying fish.
"This is one of the largest migrations in the lower 48 states," Reagan said. Some 260 bald eagles were counted Christmas weekend at three sites along the upper Skagit River. Eagles typically congregate near the end of salmon runs, to feast on migrating fish as they weaken and die after spawning.
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Reagan said great viewing opportunities for eagles last through January. The best time to watch is just before noon on a cloudy day, she said.
"They feed in the morning, about 11 o'clock," so the birds will be most active then, Reagan said. Cloudy days find eagles perched in trees or flapping lazily only a few dozen feet in the air.
"On sunny days, they're flying higher, up on the thermals," she said.
Whatcom County, especially the South Fork Valley, features several sites where eagles tend to congregate, including Deming Homestead Eagle Park, a county park with a one-third-mile path and interpretive signs along the Nooksack River floodplain near Truck Road and the Mount Baker Highway. Groups of about 50 eagles have been reported here.
Turn right onto Truck Road near Mount Baker Highway milepost No.15. The park is about a half-mile on the right. It's also accessible via Whatcom Transportation Authority bus route No. 72X - see ridewta.com for schedules.
Other good viewing locations include the Mosquito Lake Road bridge over the Nooksack River. Continue east on Truck Road past the park, then turn right onto Mosquito Lake Road. There's a dirt parking area on the right.
Another good spot is the Nooksack River bridge on Highway 9 just south of the Mount Baker Highway. There are dirt turnouts north and south of the bridge, but take care in this area because traffic moves at a fast clip. Keep a close eye on small children, especially if you walk onto the bridge.
Reagan said the best eagle viewing on the upper Skagit River is at four sites along Highway 20 where special spotters are stationed with scopes on the weekends through January:
Skagit River Bald Eagle Interpretive Center, located in Howard Miller Steelhead Park, 52809 Rockport Park Road, Rockport. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through January.
The Rockport Bridge.
Milepost 100 on Highway 20.
The Marblemount Fish Hatchery at 81319 Fish Hatchery Road. Reach it by continuing east across the Skagit River on Cascade River Road as you drive through town. Turn right on Rockport Cascade Road and right on Fish Hatchery Road.
Farther west, the flats and fields around the rural Skagit County towns of Edison, Bow and Bay View are good for raptors in general. Take an afternoon and meander the back roads surrounding Farm to Market and Bay View-Edison roads.
Eagle watchers should remember to dress for the weather - in layers, especially. Bring boots appropriate for slogging though mud and a change of shoes for the car (plus a plastic bag to transport the muddy boots).
Other items to bring include lunch, snacks, water and hot drinks.
A camera is nice and binoculars are pretty much essential. It's handy to have bird books or smartphone to help with identifying the various bird species you might observe.
Respect private property. If you pull off to the side of the road, make sure you pull all the way off the road and use your car's four-way flashers. Be careful of traffic and watch small children.
For more information about eagles and eagle watching, call the Skagit River Bald Eagle Interpretive Center at 360-853-7626 or go online to skagiteagle.org.
Additional information about eagles is available from the Seattle Audubon Society at birdweb.org. Cornell University is world-renowned for its ornithological research. It has information and a recording of the eagle's voice. Search "bald eagle" at birds.cornell.edu.