Look up. Look way up. If your eyesight is as good as a great blue heron’s, you’ll be able to spot black specks soaring above the Lower Mainland. Even if your vision is less discerning, get ready to welcome back bald eagles that are migrating south from summer feeding grounds in Alaska and B.C.’s central coast.
On the phone from the Hancock Wildlife Foundation in Surrey, David Hancock could barely contain his excitement. The honorary director of the annual Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival had just returned from a bird count in the Harrison River estuary and expressed amazement to the Georgia Straight at what he’d witnessed.
“Usually at the end of October, you’ll find two- to three hundred bald eagles feeding by the river,” said the biologist, who has spent the better part of 50 years observing eagles. “There are already 500 to 600, and they are coming in at a rate of about 100 a day. At this pace, I predict we’ll have at least 1,500 to 2,000 for the festival [November 20-21].”
When Hancock first began photographing and writing about eagles in the early 1960s, the newly graduated UBC student could only find three nesting pairs of adults. Today he estimates there are about 300. What brought the increase?
“When I started to survey along the Fraser River in my light plane, it was only 10 years after Alaska had dropped their bounty on eagles. Because of pressure from fishermen, the state used to pay hunters a couple of bucks to destroy their national symbol. As a consequence, they eliminated most of the nesting birds.”
What a difference a few decades makes. Hancock now proudly points out that during November, the Fraser Valley witnesses the largest concentration of eagles anywhere on the planet.
“I’ve travelled much of the globe and seen mammal predators migrate in large numbers, but there’s nothing that compares with this among raptors. This is a class event in the world of wildlife, especially as it all takes place within a one-square-mile radius. And it’s not just eagles. There are lots of swans, ducks, and geese. We just spotted a white heron.”
Now in its 16th year, the festival takes place at a dozen locations between Mission and Harrison Hot Springs; four main eagle-spotting sites are centred on the Harrison and Chehalis river estuaries in the vicinity of the hamlet of Harrison Mills. That’s where Rob and Jo-Anne Chadwick, operators of Fraser River Safari’s jet boat eco river tours, take groups on the Harrison River during the festival. Jo-Anne is also the festival coordinator.
On the phone from Mission, she told the Georgia Straight that she’s most excited about a gathering at the Chehalis Healing House, or Sts’ailes Lhawathet Lalem, adjacent the Chehalis River. Salmon migrate as vigorously there as in the nearby Harrison River. Chadwick felt that of the eight activity sites on the festival roster, this gathering would be the most significant.
“For the first time, the Chehalis [one of three local Sto:lo communities] welcome visitors to view dances, arts, and crafts, which I think is incredible,” she said with obvious pride. “James Leon is going to lead guided interpretive walks to talk about the significance of eagles to the Sts’ailes [Chehalis] people, plus there’s a traditional salmon barbeque. Although the tours are free, there’s a charge for lunch, so plan ahead.”
When the Straight ventured out on the Harrison River during last year’s festival, it was immediately apparent how prevalent eagles were. Tall snags rose above the estuary. On each branch rested a half-dozen or more white heads. Scowlitz First Nation members, whose land occupies the mouth of the Harrison’s confluence with the Fraser River, view eagles as being closest to the spirit world. As such, the remnants of stately black cottonwoods on which the raptors perch are referred to as “spirit trees”.
With food so close at hand, eagles can afford to be picky. Their preferred species is sockeye—which average between two and three kilograms—slightly less than the maximum weight an eagle can carry. Coho and chum are too heavy for the eagles, which, despite their size, only weigh two to four kilograms.
This summer’s massive return of sockeye to the Fraser notwithstanding, Hancock forecast trouble for the eagles.
“From what I’m hearing from my friends in Bella Bella and Prince Rupert, there’s no food for them on the coast, which is why the eagles are returning here in such numbers. Very few rivers up north have had any fish. The fall chum and pink runs on the Harrison are so far nonexistent. And big chums are the tonnage these birds need. It’s going to be a hungry midwinter, but at least the early migration bodes well for the festival.”
A seat in a jet boat is one of the best places to view birds in the estuary at the foot of the sheer-sided, cloud-draped highlands that back onto the river, especially the first tour each day with Hancock as the on-board guide. Failing that, be sure to catch one of his midday talks at the Tapadera Estates viewing site, one of two locations that feature spotting scopes. You’ll never look at eagles, or the surrounding landscape, the same after an encounter with the loquacious raconteur.
Access: The Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival takes place November 20-21 at various locations east of Vancouver between Mission and Harrison Hot Springs. For a complete listing of events, visit the Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festivals website. To view eagle nest web cams, visit the Hanckock Wildlife website.