For bald eagles, Washington winters are great

By Jeffrey P. Mayor / The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)

If you go

What: Skagit River Bald Eagle Interpretive Center

Where: Inside Howard Miller Steelhead County Park, 2809 Rockport Park Road, Rockport, Wash. The park also serves as a popular take-out for boaters drifting the river from Marblemount.

When: The center is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. all weekends, and daily Dec. 27-Jan. 1. There are guided walks at 11 a.m. weekends, and speakers at 1 p.m. Saturdays.

Admission: Free, but donations are requested to maintain operations.

Information: 360-853-7626, skagiteagle.org

Eagle festival

The Skagit Eagle Festival takes place each weekend in January. Events are held in Concrete, Rockport and Marblemount. For details, check concrete-wa.com.

As chum salmon move into rivers across the Puget Sound to begin the final stage of their life cycle, you can be sure bald eagles are not far behind. The eagles have learned that the region’s rivers and streams provide an ample food supply in the form of salmon carcasses.

During the winter, Washington serves as the winter home to more than 1,500 bald eagles in locations including the Yakima Canyon, Lake Roosevelt, the Skagit River, Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, Grays Harbor and along the Columbia River.

“They are really a pretty ubiquitous bird here in the winter, after they come back from their summer feeding along the British Columbia coast,” said Rob McNair-Huff, co-author of “Birding Washington.”

“Look along any river or stream where it runs into saltwater. That’s where they are going to be hunting for fish,” he said. “Like Chambers Creek, where the creek runs into the bay.”

McNair-Huff cited multiple reasons why bald eagles are so popular with birders, especially beginners.

“It’s the bird that’s associated with the United States. People universally know its place as our national bird,” he said.

Like great blue herons, bald eagles are large birds that are easy to identity. Another reason, he said, is eagles’ nests also are easy to spot.

“It’s one bird that people who don’t spend a lot of time looking at birds can identify,” McNair-Huff said. “Everyone has a story when they saw a bald eagle.”

One of the most popular locations to look for bald eagles is along the upper Skagit River, from Concrete to Marblemount.

Each winter, hundreds of eagles come to the river valley, looking to feed on salmon in the river and its tributaries. It is one of the largest wintering populations of bald eagles in the lower 48 states. Eagles can be seen typically from late November through February.

The best location to start your adventure is the Skagit River Bald Eagle Interpretive Center, which opened Saturday for its seventh season.

Other Skagit River locations

State Route 530 bridge: The bridge over the river offers good views upstream and downstream. The bridge is a short, easy walk from the interpretive center.

Skagit Wildlife Area-Bald Eagle Natural Unit: Located on the south side of the river, off Martin Road, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife area protects 2,450 acres of eagle winter habitat. A short trail leads from the parking area to the river. It is part of the 8,000-acre Skagit River Bald Eagle Natural Area that includes land managed by federal, state, county and city agencies, as well as The Nature Conservancy.

Rockport State Park: At night, eagles will perch on the branches of big old-growth trees, like those in the park. In the late afternoon, people hiking through the park might be rewarded with a chorus of chatterings and vocalizations from the night roosts high overhead.

Marblemount: The trees near the fish hatchery, off Cascade River Road, attract plenty of eagles. Pressentin County Park is another viewing location.

Eagle viewing tips

• Try to be at a site between dawn and 11 a.m. During those hours, you might hear eagles twitterings and “chak-chaks” of feeding eagles.

• Bring along binoculars and spotting scopes. While many birds will be close enough to see, having optics will give you a much closer look.

• Do not get too close. Eagles feed by the river’s edge where dead salmon wash up on river bars. When eagles are feeding, do not disturb them or approach too closely. Eagles waste valuable energy fleeing humans who come too close or create a disturbance.

• Cloudy or overcast days are the best days to see and photograph bald eagles. On such days, after eating, bald eagles will stay close to the river, perching in trees, digesting their morning meal, and conserving energy. On days with bright sun, eagles are more active and many seem to disappear as they ride updrafts thousands of feet in the air.