Watching eagles at the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, near Haines
A fall salmon run in Alaska's Chilkat River attracts the world's largest concentration of Bald Eagles.
Published: September 1, 1998
|The first Bald Eagle is spotted at Mile 16 of the Haines Highway. White head and tail show it to be an adult, at least five years old. The eagle isn't doing anything spectacular. It's not soaring, diving, or feeding; it's simply sitting in a cottonwood, motionless except for its head, which it swivels our way as the bus slows.|
Inside the bus, a shout of "There's one, on the left!" has stirred a flurry of activity. Some passengers grab binoculars or cameras, while others put their faces to windows. It's an unusual thing, to be among nine Alaskans, all intently focused on this one bird. Each of us has seen Bald Eagles before, many times. This is nothing new, or especially exciting. But it's not the lone eagle that's got us stirred up. It's what the bird portends.
We pull over and spend a few moments of this early December morning in the company of the lone eagle, our greeter to one of the world's great wildlife feasts. Then, anxious to attend the banquet, we continue up the road, toward the heart of the 48,000-acre Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. Within five minutes, we're surrounded by Bald Eagles. Dozens of them roost, like feathered holiday ornaments, in the large cottonwoods that line the highway. They mostly sit alone, or in small groups of two, three, and four. But in one tree, I count twelve eagles. Others sit immobile on the Chilkat River's snow covered flats, circle and play in the sky, or pick at salmon carcasses.
Two miles away, on the opposite banks of the Chilkat River, are more cottonwoods and even larger concentrations of roosting eagles. Some trees have more than thirty birds. In all, hundreds of Bald Eagles are visible, as well as smaller numbers of ravens, gulls, mergansers, and magpies. It's a sensory overload, for ears as well as eyes. In a talkative mood, the eagles chatter in high-pitched screeches and trills.
Each autumn, for as long as anyone can remember, thousands of Bald Eagles have congregated in the Chilkat Valley, at the northern end of Alaska's panhandle. Attracted by a late-fall run of chum salmon, they come from an area of more than 100,000 square miles. The majority reside in southeast Alaska (200 to 400 are year-round residents), but tagging studies have shown that others, usually younger birds, travel from as far away as Washington state.
This meeting of eagles, the largest in the world, is centered in a 5,000-acre Critical Habitat Area called the Bald Eagle Council Grounds. For much of the winter, springs keep a five-mile section of the Chilkat River from freezing over, giving eagles easy access to a large supply of spawned-out chum salmon carcasses at a time of year when food is normally scarce.
Fortunately for the eagles, the upwelling groundwater aerates and cleans the river bottom to create exceptionally good salmon-spawning habitat. Lucky, too, that chums choose this open water to spawn, and that they enter the river as late as January; few of Alaska's salmon runs occur so late in the year.
Equally lucky are the eagle watchers. The Bald Eagle Council Grounds are easily visible from the Haines Highway, and are only a short drive from the town of Haines, which offers year-round visitor services. It's this unusual convergence of variables - winter, open water, chum salmon spawning grounds, eagles, highway, nearby comforts - that make the Chilkat experience unique.
Large numbers of eagles normally arrive by October, with a population peak between mid-November and early December. Most leave by January, when salmon carcasses dwindle and the river gradually freezes. Eagle numbers vary considerably from year to year, depending on the availability of food, which in turn depends mainly on weather and the strength of the salmon run. Since the late 1970s, when researchers began doing aerial surveys, annual peak counts have ranged from 1,000 to nearly 4,000 Bald Eagles. In 1984, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recorded a "modern record" of 3,988 eagles. In the 1990s, annual highs have ranged from 2,137 to 3,284 birds.
Once the tour bus is parked in a designated turnout, we step out into overcast, calm, 20-degree weather. The rules are simple: stay out of traffic and off the flats (where the eagles feed), keep tripods off the roadway, and don't do anything to harass the birds. No trails or viewing decks have been built, so visitors must watch, photograph, and videotape the eagles from either the turnouts or the narrow wooded corridor between the road and river channel.
Armed with camera gear, binoculars, and spotting scopes, we quickly disperse. As I walk to a neighboring turnout, it becomes clear that Chilkat's eagles have acclimated to motor vehicle traffic. They pay little or no attention to cars and trucks rumbling past. Human traffic, however, is not so universally tolerated. My presence disturbs a few of the eagles, who leave their cottonwood perches with slow-motioned waves of their wings. But most are content to nod their heads or stare impassively as I walk past.
Several roosting eagles sit with their wings extended downward. This "relaxation posture" helps them dry out feathers that become wet when they fish for salmon bodies. In winter's cold, Bald Eagles feed almost exclusively on dead or dying salmon. Capturing an active fish requires a high energy expenditure that they can't afford. The choicest goods are fish carcasses that have been recently submerged or partially eaten, which eliminates the need to tear through tough skin. Fish exposed to the air soon freeze and become inedible.
An opening in the trees allows me a good view of the flats. Less than ten yards away, chum salmon swim in one of the Chilkat River's open channels. Many have already spawned and are slowly dying. Along the river bottom are two carcasses. A third carcass, pulled up on the riverbank, is surrounded by three eagles. Only one feeds; the others watch and wait their turn. Also watching in nearby cottonwoods are a dozen more eagles.
The feeding bird tears off a chunk of flesh, swallows it, then quickly looks around, making certain that no competitors are trying to cut in. At three different times, spectator eagles leave their roost and swoop low over the gravel bar. The feeding eagle ducks its head, but keeps its grip on the salmon, and the challengers fly off. Finally, a rival comes in with wings and talons extended. Both the feeder and the two nearby observers screech loudly. But they jump clear and yield to the newcomer. Although it looks combative, this displacement has a cooperative function. Studies have shown that injuries rarely occur during such confrontations because eagles tend to "attack" smaller or less ravenous birds that will likely yield a carcass without a fight. Through their body language, food holders apparently show whether or not they'll aggressively defend their meal. Displacement, or pirating, can therefore be a highly efficient way of procuring a meal, often preferable to hunting.
Despite all the prey that's available, there's remarkably little feeding out on the flats. Most of the eagles sit motionless, as though patiently awaiting their turn in the buffet line. This, too, is typical cold-weather behavior. The reason is simple to conserve energy.
At night, or even in the daytime when the weather is harsh, Chilkat's eagles abandon the river flats and roost in cottonwoods or in the nearby old-growth spruce and hemlock forest. On rare occasions, extended cold spells will drive them from the valley entirely. Energy conservation isn't quite as critical when the weather is mild and food abundant. In September and October, and sometimes even into November, Chilkat's eagles are more likely to be spotted soaring or engaged in an aerial behavior called "talon locking." Flying in pairs, the birds face each other and lock talons, then tumble downward in a freefall.
Chilkat's eagles are now considered a local, state, and national treasure. But earlier this century they were hunted as vermin because of the widespread and mistaken belief that their appetite for salmon and small game posed a threat to commercial fishermen and trappers. From 1917 to 1952, more than 128,000 of Alaska's Bald Eagles were killed for territorial bounties of $1 to $2 per eagle; many were taken in Chilkat Valley. The bounty on eagles ended in 1953. Six years later, Alaska gained statehood status and its eagles gained federal protection through the National Bald Eagle Act of 1940. Still, some killing continued.
The Chilkat gathering, though recognized as unique, didn't receive any special protection until 1972, when the 5,000 acre Critical Habitat Area was established. Any activities that might threaten the eagles were prohibited within the new sanctuary, but surrounding eagle habitat remained open to resource development. Finally, in June 1982, 200 years after the Bald Eagle had been chosen as America's emblem, then governor Jay Hammond signed legislation that established the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. Managed by the Division of Parks with the help of a twelve-member advisory council, the preserve is unique among Alaska's state park units in that its primary mission is to preserve wildlife and wildlife habitat.
Getting there: The 48,000-acre Chilkat Preserve is located ten miles from the coastal community of Haines, at the northern end of Alaska's panhandle, and the Bald Eagle Council Grounds is about eighteen miles from town. The Haines Highway cuts through the preserve and offers excellent eagle-viewing opportunities; the main gathering of eagles is easily visible from the roadside, between mileposts 18 and 22.
Weather: From October through December, the main eagle-viewing period, visitors should expect cold, wet, and often stormy weather. Temperatures may rise above freezing or fall below zero. Strong winds often blow through the valley, occasionally dropping wind chills to minus 40 degrees or more.
When to go: Between 200 and 400 Bald Eagles live in the Chilkat Valley year-round, but eagles from other regions begin to gather in early fall. For prime eagle viewing, the Alaska Division of Parks recommends November, when numbers are usually at their peak. The first half of December generally offers excellent eagle watching as well, but the weather is more severe and extended cold spells sometimes prompt the birds to disperse.
Facilities and services: After years with no public facilities, the preserve now has an open-air shelter with interpretive displays, a new pullout, toilets, and a roadside trail with viewing platform and spotting scope. Campgrounds in nearby Chilkat State Park and two state recreation sites are closed during the prime eagle-viewing period. Haines offers a full range of visitor services, including car rentals and year-round guided tours into the preserve. The town is also the headquarters of the American Bald Eagle Foundation, with visitor center and natural history exhibits.
For more information, contact Alaska State Park, 400 Willoughby, Third Floor, Juneau, AK 99801, (907) 465-4563, or call the ranger office in Haines at (907) 766-2292. For information on visitor services, contact the Haines Visitor Bureau, Box 530, Haines, AK 99827, (907) 766-2234. For details about the American Bald Eagle Foundation, call founding member Dave Olerud at (907) 766-2441. For information on the Bald Eagle Festival, call the Haines Chamber of Commerce at (800) 246-6268.
Eagles bring tourists
Once deeply divided over the need to protect Chilkat's eagles, the community of Haines now overwhelmingly supports the preserve for a simple reason - economics. Over the past fifteen years, with traditional resource industries in decline, such as mining and logging, Haines has become increasingly dependent on tourism. And Chilkat's eagles are a big draw.
A half-hour drive from the Bald Eagle Council Grounds, this coastal town of about 1,200 people has become the gateway to the Chilkat preserve. Visitors can get to Haines by ferry, plane, or car - a rarity in largely roadless southeast Alaska. About 12,000 people visit the preserve annually, mostly in summer. And nearly all spend time, and money, in Haines. Not surprisingly, businesses have begun to emphasize their community's eagle connection. "The preserve was created for the eagles, not for tourism. It just so happens to be along the highway - but that fact makes it a tourist attraction," says Ray Menaker, a longtime Haines resident who served on the preserve's advisory council for a decade. "A lot of people who originally didn't like the idea have become gung-ho because of the added tourism in winter and late fall. The preserve has been a fortuitous thing. It's put Haines on the map. This is where the eagles are."
Haines and the mountains, lakes, rivers, and ocean that surround it have plenty to offer the summer tourist: salmon derbies, river trips, wildlife viewing, Native American dancing, theater productions, arts and crafts shows, camping, hiking, and a late-summer state fair. Though still comparatively small, winter use of the Chilkat preserve has grown sharply over the past decade, thanks largely to documentaries, magazine articles, and even a live broadcast, televised via satellite to a world-wide audience in 1986.
During the preserve's "high-exposure time" in the 1980s, ranger Bill Zack once counted 300 people watching eagles. But that's proved to be the exception. More typical are daily winter counts of twenty to thirty people, mostly amateur and professional photographers who stay in Haines for periods of a few days to a few weeks.
Eight years after my first visit, I returned to the Chilkat Valley in late November. My timing was lousy. The weather was the stormiest it had been all season. More than two feet of snow fell during my five-day stay, and when it wasn't snowing, high winds kicked up a ground blizzard and drove wind chill temperatures to 40 degrees below zero.
Heavy, drifting snow kept me in Haines for two days. Two other days were only marginally better, but I dug out the rental car and headed for the Bald Eagle Council Grounds. Winds and below-zero chill drove the eagles off the flats into the trees. A few hundred eagles roosted in cottonwoods along the highway, but most fled to the relative comfort of old-growth sitka spruce and hemlock in the neighboring Haines State Forest. Nearly all the eagles sat immobile, hunched over, though a few hardy birds picked at partially frozen carcasses on the riverbank.
Yet for all the gloom and cold, there was one morning when I caught a break in the weather. Bill Zack was kind enough to give me a ride to the preserve through still-unplowed streets, and we found the valley rich with birds - mergansers, ravens, gulls, chickadees, magpies, jays. And lots of eagles. More than I had ever seen. Zack told me that 2,137 eagles were counted on the year's first survey flight. And the salmon return looked healthy. Two pieces of good news. We walked along the highway to a spot that offered a panoramic view of the Council Grounds. Then Zack handed me his binoculars and challenged me to "see how many you can count."
First I scanned the flats where hundreds of eagles sat on stumps, snags, boulders, and snow-covered ground, and counted 590. Next, the cottonwoods. My eyes began to blur as I slowly scanned the distant trees, trying to keep track of the tiny, dark shapes. I estimated 360 more, 950 in all. Zack and I traded glances, then smiled. It's a place of wonder, this valley of eagles.
Bill Sherwonit is a freelance writer and photographer from Anchorage, Alaska. He is the author of Alaska's Accessible Wilderness: A Traveler's Guide to Alaska's State Parks (Alaska Northwest Books).||