Your Best Chance to see Bald Eagles Up Close

By Carrie Krueger, Director of Marketing

Many of us enjoy eating salmon, but few enjoy it more than bald eagles. They eat their salmon a little differently than humans.

Eagles like old, rotten carcasses, the kind you find each winter along some of our region’s rivers. And while that’s not a very appetizing picture, the site of eagles hanging out along the river looking for winter food is nothing short of thrilling.

Bald eagles on the Skagit River. Photo © Photo by Mike Benbow.

I’ve always wanted to paddle the Skagit River and see the eagles that come down from a freezing Canada each year. I jumped at the chance to join the Paddle Trails Canoe Club for a day-long trip. Thirteen of us formed a flotilla in crafts ranging from a large, stable raft (the safest option for a novice paddler) to sleek, single-person kayaks. While our watercrafts varied, we were unified in our search for the birds — you might even say we were eagle-eyed!

It took no time at all to spot our first eagle, and we continued to see them quite often on our three-hour trip. The biggest thrill was drifting toward a stand of trees with at least a dozen eagles perching at all levels. We also saw eagles fighting over food. And my personal favorite: An eagle landed right on top of an enormous tree, like an angel on top of a Christmas tree.

An eagle tops a tree on the Skagit River. Photo © Carol Ingram

I learned that the number of eagles is actually down this year due to the high waters we had a few months ago. The eagles are here for salmon carcasses found on gravel bars along the river. But many of those were washed away in the heavy rains. Despite the lower numbers, eagles were plentiful, including mottled juveniles. Why so many young ‘uns? Eagles take four to five years to mature.

It was hard to capture the day in pictures. The light was flat and the eagles that appeared beautiful to my eye were just dots in the photos. These photos from previous years offer better detail. But there’s nothing like seeing them first-hand. And by the way, you don’t need to be on the water to see them. The Skagit Eagle Festival offers activities and viewpoints that do not require a life jacket. Grab your binoculars and go!

A bald eagle flies over Port Susan Bay near Stanwood on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017. Photo by Ian Terry / The Herald.

It was especially lovely to drift past the mouth of Illabot Creek. I remembered my colleague Bob Carey’s story of nearly walking across the plentiful salmon in this creek.  And I remembered the celebration when this area that The Nature Conservancy helped preserve nearly 40 years ago was declared a National Wild and Scenic River. These rivers and the watersheds they support are critical to the well-being of our iconic salmon, bald eagles and, in turn, the health of Puget Sound, orcas, our shellfish industry and much more.

I already knew that rivers matter, but a day of paddling and eagle watching inspired me to do even more to protect and restore them for generations to come.

Learn More About Our Work in the Skagit Valley