Whatcom County may be one of the best places in America to spot bald eagles.
That’s because the county offers a range of habitats that provide a smorgasbord of dining opportunities for the mighty predator. The Nooksack River provides salmon and steelhead in summer, fall and winter, and eagles are more than willing to scavenge unsightly carcasses along riverbanks long after the last fish has spawned and died.
The county’s saltwater shores and freshwater lakes also provide fish, as well as ducks and other aquatic birds, that make tempting targets.
Sit still and keep your eyes open in eagle country and you might see something remarkable. I’ve seen two eagles fight over a writhing garter snake on a wood piling in Chuckanut Bay.
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Another time, at Birch Bay State Park, I looked up to find the source of downy white feathers floating down from a tree at the edge of the beach: A bald eagle was ripping into a dead golden-eye duck on an overhead branch.
On Lake Padden, I saw two eagles working together to separate a coot from a flock, harassing the bird in tandem until it no longer had the energy to dive to safety and escape their talons.
It’s no longer unusual to spot an eagle soaring over downtown Bellingham, commuting from one feeding site to the next, harassed en route by a troop of crows or seagulls. But nobody should take America’s national symbol for granted. Just a few decades ago, eagles and many other predator birds were sliding toward extinction, squeezed by loss of habitat and by the pesticide DDT.
The banning of DDT and federal protection under the Endangered Species Act appear to have saved the eagles for now. In 1980, biologists counted just 105 nesting eagle pairs around the state. Now the count is above 800, and other areas of the country have seen similar rebounds.
• While Whatcom County’s bald eagle population is larger in the winter, the saltwater shoreline offers year-round opportunities to get a good look at them. Some of the most likely spots are the two state parks, Birch Bay and Larrabee. In the Blaine area, Semiahmoo Spit is another accessible area, with picnic tables, rest rooms and a nice stretch of public shoreline at Semiahmoo Park.
• Inside Bellingham, eagles can often be seen in trees on the bluff overlooking the city’s water treatment plant, just south of Marine Park at the foot of Harris Avenue.
• At Lake Padden, there’s often an eagle or two perched atop a dead snag along the shoreline on the south end of the lake, but you can barely see them without a scope or powerful binoculars.
• Eagles also appear regularly at the junction of Bloedel-Donovan and Whatcom Falls parks, where the lake empties into Whatcom Creek.
• The lower Nooksack River provides some of the most likely close-up viewing opportunities in the winter. Perhaps the best option is Deming Eagle Park, just off Mount Baker Highway on Truck Road. A bit farther east, turn right onto Mosquito Lake Road and follow it to the bridge. There’s a dirt parking lot on the right.
Down on the riverbed, below the bridge, you might see a half-dozen eagles picking at salmon carcasses on the sandbars. The area isn’t designed for public use, so watch for passing vehicles and keep children close.