When I was a kid,  I was fascinated by birds of prey, particularly the elusive (at the time) Bald Eagle.  Though I grew up around here, it took a trip to Alaska with my family at age 12 before I was able to actually see my first “real eagle”.  It was an amazing introduction, sitting in the kitchen, staring out the window while an eagle soared straight up from the Gastineau Channel carrying a fish in its talons.  After that I was hooked, I wanted to see them at every opportunity!

Since being put on the endangered species list, the once rare eagles have rebounded and can be seen flying over our local freeways on the commute into work, or calmly sitting in a tree keeping an eye out for food or competition.  In order to really experience the eagles, there are a number of wild places you can easily seek them out and observe their behaviors, as well as get close enough to grab a photo or two. Viewing large numbers is a seasonal occurrence, with the majority of the eagles arriving from their long migration from Alaska from late November to late January.  Their numbers peak in late December and into the second week of January, when they are feeding on carcasses of spawned salmon in the river.  Early morning activity coupled with cloudy and overcast days give the best chances of seeing the eagles, as they feed in the morning and then wait out the day, looking to conserve energy by sitting in the bare Cottonwood trees along the river.  On a sunny day they tend to be more active and energetic, feeding in the morning followed by high soaring in the sunny blue skies on updrafts.

©Orion Ahrensfeld

The first place that comes to mind for most is the Skagit Valley and the Skagit River.  Rockport State Park, just east of Concrete and north of Darrington, is the ideal location along the Skagit to view the eagles.  The park has a number of trails as well as campsites and easy access to the river shore where the eagles congregate.  If you are looking for a longer trail there is the steep Sauk Mountain Trail to the top of Sauk Mountain direct to the summit at 5,400 feet.

Outside of the core Skagit River area, eagles can be easily observed along the local roads surrounding Highway 20 in the Skagit Valley, with large numbers congregating wherever the migrating snow geese flock is presently resting for the winter.  The vast numbers of snow geese create a boon of easy food, and during the winter months the eagles will watch and wait for an injured goose to fall, and will often harass the flock, stirring them up into a vast sea of white moving birds swirling through the air.  Because of this behavior, many local farmers have begun placing cardboard bald eagle cutouts in their fields, to discourage the snow geese from landing there.  The annual snow geese migration happens to coincide with the influx of migrating bald eagles, as they arrive in October and depart in May.  Sadly, one of the most consistent places to closely view a bald eagle nesting site, the wildlife reserve off of Fir Island Road, has become a victim of nature.  A recent windstorm destroyed a large beautiful aerie near the parking lot and left nothing behind.  Whether the eagles return to rebuild the nest is unknown, but it’s always a good stopping point on the route scouting for snow geese and bald eagles as the eagles will often perch in some of the larger clusters of trees along the route.

©Orion Ahrensfeld

If you are looking to see bald eagles outside of the winter migration months, Deception Pass State Park offers a good chance to see them waiting to scoop a fish out of the sound, and you will often see them perched high above the water near the bridge, along the trails and beaches, as well as at nearby Bowman Bay and its associated trails.  Dungeness Spit, on the Olympic Peninsula, also has opportunities to view the eagles as they perch on the driftwood, and the 5 mile beach “trail” out to the end of the spit is a worthy outing for anyone looking to see birds or check out the Lighthouse at the far end.

Seeing these magnificent birds, whether perched on a tree or soaring overhead or diving down to snatch a fish from the river, is always an exciting delight, and one to which those who live in the Pacific Northwest are uniquely fortunate to be able to so easily observe.

©Orion Ahrensfeld
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