With low salmon run on the Skagit, more bald eagles are heading here

Watch bald eagles along the Nooksack River

December is the time to watch bald eagles feasting on salmon along the Nooksack River.
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December is the time to watch bald eagles feasting on salmon along the Nooksack River.

Carrying maps, binoculars and data sheets, the U.S. Forest Service’s Tanya Kitterman and Phyllis Reed drove along a scenic stretch of the Skagit River, making several stops to scan the trees for bald eagles.

“There’s an adult perched in a cottonwood over there,” Kitterman said while pointing across the river from Howard Miller Steelhead Park.

She and Reed completed last week a winter bald eagle survey along the Skagit River from Rockport to Marblemount.

The location of each eagle seen was noted, and each eagle was denoted as being adult or young, and as flying or perching or eating.

“Part of it is being able to understand the river and then how to protect, preserve and maintain the area used by eagles,” Reed, a wildlife biologist for the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, said of the survey. “If we see where the eagles are perching, it gives us an idea of what habitat it important.”

Over the previous 35 years, surveyors including Kitterman and Reed have noted that the eagles spend evenings in forests set back from the river, perch in trees along the river while scouting for food, and eat along the riverbanks and the sandbars that protrude from the water.

The eagles are drawn to the Skagit and other area rivers in pursuit of chum salmon that swim upstream during the winter to spawn and die. Eagles are scavengers that pick the dead fish off the riverbanks.

This winter is the lowest chum run on record for the Skagit, while the Nooksack has consistently been better over the last decade.

Jason Ransom, a wildlife biologist with North Cascades National Park

In recent years, the number of chum returning to the Skagit River to spawn has been low, and some floods early in the spawning season have washed the dead fish downstream.

Forest Service and National Park Service staff said that’s why the past few winters more of the eagles have been found on the Nooksack River to the north and in the lower reaches of the Skagit River watershed.

“This winter is the lowest chum run on record for the Skagit, while the Nooksack has consistently been better over the last decade,” North Cascades National Park wildlife biologist Jason Ransom said.

Kitterman and Reed watched and listened Friday for signs of the eagles along the Skagit River.

They surveyed nine sites along the river from Howard Miller Steelhead Park in Rockport to the Marblemount Fish Hatchery.

“I see a subadult (young eagle) through the trees there,” Kitterman said while peering through a thick stand of trees using binoculars.

Young eagles are identified by their brown feathers and beaks. Bald eagles develop white heads, white tails and yellow beaks over the first five years of their lives, Kitterman said.

With years of practice through the annual Skagit River bald eagle surveys, Kitterman and Reed learned to spot eagles among the trees and differentiate between the young and adults, even while the birds are in flight.

Bald eagles were removed from the endangered species list in 2007, and the future of the annual winter survey is uncertain.

The survey has undergone several changes since its start in 1982, which came 15 years after the bald eagle was federally listed as an endangered species. An endangered species is at risk of becoming extinct.

The survey was shortened from 20 weeks to 13 and then to six. It was launched by the Nature Conservancy with the North Cascades National Park and the Mount Baker- Snoqualmie National Forest coming aboard later.

Now, a decade after the bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list in 2007, the future of the survey is uncertain.

The Nature Conservancy and the North Cascades National Park are no longer involved in the survey, which was formerly done in three sections from Sedro-Woolley to Newhalem, with the Rockport to Marblemount section being the middle of the three.

This year, Kitterman committed to continuing the survey for the section from Rockport to Marblemount because it overlaps with locations used for the Eagle Watchers program.

The Eagle Watchers are a group of volunteers Kitterman organizes each year to provide guided walks, binoculars and spotting scopes to help visitors get a close-up view of the birds.

“A lot of people come up here (this time of year) because they’re excited to see the eagles, and we get to share the beauty and importance of the Skagit River with them,” Kitterman said while walking along a trail at Howard Miller Steelhead Park.

At Howard Miller and other locations along the Skagit River, organizations have helped preserve land where the surveys have shown frequent bald eagle activity.

“We’re working with partners to stitch together property important for eagles from Sedro-Woolley to North Cascades National Park,” Reed said.

The national park begins between Marblemount and Newhalem. The Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest abuts the national park, including in areas north of Rockport and Marblemount.

Surrounded by federal lands, state lands and other conservation land held by organizations including Skagit Land Trust and Seattle City Light, the section of the survey that Kitterman and Reed completed Friday is known as the Skagit River Bald Eagle Natural Area. Kitterman said it’s here that the largest concentration of wintering bald eagles is typically found along the Skagit River.

“When they started doing it (the survey), we didn’t really know a whole lot about bald eagles on the Skagit and now we have a pretty good picture,” she said.