January mornings dawn slowly in the Northwest. The steely gray sky mutes the feeble sunlight as a steady drizzle adds to the early-hour chill. It all combines to form a great excuse to stay in bed. But for birding enthusiasts making their way to the Upper Skagit River Valley in pursuit of bald eagles, it’s the perfect storm. Ornithologically inclined adventurists head there in the dead of winter to bask in the presence of the hundreds of eagles that travel from Alaska and British Columbia to feed on the spawning chum salmon making their way up the river.
The peak season is just after the Christmas holidays, tapering off toward the middle of February, says Deanna Ensley, a former member of the Upper Skagit Bald Eagle Festival who has a background in wildlife management. “People worry about the weather, but it’s almost never an issue.”
Steady rain and temperatures hovering in the 30s may be enough to drive you indoors, but the weather represents a tropical paradise for the eagles, complete with a buffet. The best bet to catch a glimpse is 95 miles north of Seattle, off Highway 20, heading east through Concrete toward Rockport and beyond. On cloudy and cold days in mid-January, more than 100 eagles may be visible even from the highway. In fact, many of the 4,000 or so visitors who make the trek each winter to check in on the birds just stop in the middle of the road, backing up traffic as they take in the large predators. “I’ve seen people just set up tripods on the highway,” Ensley says. “It’s crazy.”
The traffic jams got so dangerous, in fact, that the Department of Transportation approached the U.S. Forest Service for help. The Forest Service turned to North Cascades Institute, a nonprofit group created to educate the public on environmental issues. The institute formed the Eagle Watchers, a group of trained volunteers who staff three dedicated eagle-
watching outposts, complete with binoculars and spotting scopes, in an effort to get the public into the area—and off the roads.
It seems that each eagle watcher comes looking for something different. For some, such as Native Americans, the experience is spiritual. Others are animal lovers, and some are patriots who want to commune with the national bird. Regardless of the reasons, the eagles often elicit an emotional response. “The eagles touch a wild side in us that we don’t get to access much anymore,” says Lee Whitford, a naturalist with North Cascades Institute and one of the Eagle Watcher organizers.
Creating your own eagle story requires getting off the road and bringing plenty of warm clothing, binoculars, and patience. If you get to a watching outpost and find no eagles, just wait awhile. Chances are the eagles will come. “It’s impossible not to see them,” Ensley says. “On a nice day, they get up in the sky and ride the thermals, especially near Rockport.” Bald eagles are most active from sunrise to late morning, when they congregate to feed on the river banks. “Watching them feed and fight over fish is pretty impressive,” Ensley says. Afterward, they stick close to the river, roosting in nearby trees to conserve warmth and energy after a morning of feeding.
No matter how awestruck you may be, don’t approach the birds (which recently lost federal protection as an endangered species) as they feed. However, when they’re safely in trees, it’s possible to get close on foot. Those who approach slowly and quietly can get a great view of eagles without spooking them. “We used to think eagles needed quiet, but they’ve adapted to people quite well,” Ensley says. “They don’t always like us, but they tolerate us.”
Those close-up views can be intimidating, though. Bald eagles are very large birds—adults can top three feet from beak to tail, weigh as much as 14 pounds, and boast wingspans of more than seven feet. A close look at their talons and hooked beaks, coupled with their unique plumage, should be enough to remind you of the awesome symbolism the birds convey. If not, the bird’s tree limb–shaking, whooshing takeoff will quickly remind you. And if one catches your eye with its fierce glare, take heart—most eagles can only pick up four pounds at most.