Through January, ranger-led walks help you spot bald eagles as they forage for spawned-out salmon.
For humans, the Pacific Northwest in winter means colder temperatures, short days and the urge to hibernate. But for bald eagles, this is a kind of vacation destination. Thousands of the big raptors migrate south from their permanent nests in Canada and Alaska and descend on the region’s river valleys to gorge themselves on salmon here to spawn.
The Upper Skagit River valley, home to one of the Lower 48’s largest concentrations of wintering eagles, celebrates their arrival with the Skagit Eagle Festival each January. The festival is a series of casual, loosely connected events held in towns along the river throughout the month.
“For these birds, this is Florida,” Matthew Riggen, a U.S. Forest Service ranger with the Darrington Ranger District, told a group of amateur eagle enthusiasts during a recent guided hike from the Skagit River Bald Eagle Interpretive Center in Rockport.
The interpretive center opens for the season in early December, around the time most of the eagles arrive. Each weekend through the end of January, it offers a warm place to grab coffee and a snack, ask for advice on spotting eagles, and take in expert presentations.
Walking with eagles
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The guided walks are a centerpiece of the interpretive center’s outreach. Like most things eagle-related around here, it’s a cooperative effort with the Forest Service and local communities.
During our mile-long walk, Riggen took us along the riverbank in Skagit County’s Howard Miller Steelhead Park to a restoration project reclaiming salmon-friendly habitat in a low-lying area once used for cattle grazing.
The eagles’ distinctive high-pitched cries turned our heads. Visitors from as far away as California peered through telephoto lenses and loaner binoculars. And the birds were there, usually appearing first as dark shapes among the bare tree branches, then taking on their classic soaring form as they took off and rode the currents in search of a meal.
We might not have recognized one teenage eagle if Riggen hadn’t told us earlier that immature eagles look very different from their older counterparts, complete with longer wing feathers and beaks that are dark instead of yellow. We watched as it flapped wet wings to dry off from a rainy morning spent searching out fish.
The interpretive center isn’t the only place where visitors can get help spotting eagles: The Forest Service recruits and trains volunteers who staff official eagle-watching sites such as the Marblemount Fish Hatchery, where savvy eagles know a meal predictably awaits.
The Eagle Watcher program is more about education than entertainment, Riggen says. Before it was instituted in 1992, “People were pulling over and stopping in the middle of the highways, disrupting traffic and flushing the birds.”
Disturbing eagles’ usual habits of resting and eating can be dangerous for the creatures, who may lose 25 percent of their body weight during their southward migration and don’t have energy to spare.
Whether you see two eagles or 20, they make for a great excuse to spend time with one of the state’s most iconic waterways. “It’s not only about the eagles,” said Erica Keene, the forest service’s Eagle Watcher program coordinator. “The Skagit is just a cool river.”
Tips for the eagle-eyed
It’s not hard to find eagles here, but a bit of planning can help make the most of a trip.
• Check in at the interpretive center. Along with guided walks every Saturday and Sunday at 11 a.m. through month’s end, the Skagit Bald Eagle Interpretive Center hosts talks on topics ranging from glaciers to local plant life every Saturday in January at 1 p.m. Reservations are not required. Even if you don’t turn up for an event, this is a good place to plan your eagle-watching day.
• Stop at designated eagle-watching spots. From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on January weekends, Eagle Watcher volunteers are stationed at the Sutter Creek Rest Area (at Milepost 100) on Highway 20 and at the Marblemount Fish Hatchery as well as in Steelhead Park. They are trained to answer questions and are outfitted with binoculars.
• Explore the region: Other good places to see eagles include the Nooksack River, Padilla Bay near Anacortes and the Bald Eagle Unit of the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife’s Skagit Wildlife Area.
• Understand eagle behavior. Hearing about thousands of eagles in one area might conjure thoughts of dozens lining every tree limb in a tree. But they don’t tend to flock, so look for lone eagles rather than crowds.
• Go early to see active birds. Morning, from daylight to about 10 a.m., is often the best time to see eagles swooping down to the river to feed, said Anissa Smith, the interpretive center coordinator. After that, they tend to roost, which is less dramatic but makes them easier to photograph or observe with binoculars.
• Don’t worry about weather. “People think if it’s rainy they’re not going to be here, but rainy days might be some of the best eagle days,” Keene said — especially since it keeps human numbers down.
• Look beyond eagles. The Skagit River area is perfect habitat for lots of different animals. While we were looking for eagles recently, a handful of trumpeter swans — America’s biggest waterfowl, at up to 6 feet long — cruised over our heads.
• Check the Web: From fall through spring, the Forest Service keeps a running tally of eagles counted each Wednesday along sections of the river, which it publishes at skagiteaglewatchers.wordpress.com. Checking past years’ numbers can tell you when peak eagle times are likely to be.
• Volunteer. While the Eagle Watcher program requires volunteers to sign up in advance and attend training, the interpretive center always needs more people to answer questions and guide visitors.
If you go
Skagit Eagle Festival continues on weekends through January with Native American storytelling, music, photography workshops and more; skagiteaglefestival.com.
Skagit River Bald Eagle Interpretive Center is adjacent to Howard Miller Steelhead Park at 52809 Rockport Park Road, Rockport, Skagit County. Free naturalist-guided hikes at 11 a.m. Saturday-Sunday through January: 360-853-7626 or skagiteagle.org.
Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife’s Skagit Wildlife Area:wdfw.wa.gov/lands/wildlife_areas/skagit and click on “Bald Eagle Natural.”
Rockport State Park hosts its Deep Forest Experience, with exhibits and refreshments in park’s Discovery Center. Guided 0.4-mile walking tours of old-growth forest hourly, 10 a.m.-1 p.m., Friday-Sunday through Feb. 14. Discover Pass required (except Jan. 17-18; no pass needed). 51905 SR 20, Rockport; parks.state.wa.us/574/Rockport