For bald-eagle fans in the Northwest, the cool, dark days of December and January don’t mean outdoor doldrums. This is prime eagle-viewing time.
In winter, many eagles make their way from high-latitude areas to the relatively warm and food-rich lakes and rivers of Washington, Oregon and southern British Columbia. Since winter is not mating or hatching season, the birds congregate more than usual, meaning you potentially can see dozens at once, often feeding on salmon at the side of spawning streams. Bonus: You’ll probably see other animals as well.
While the Skagit River is a nearby option, it’s not the only one. Here are some of the best eagle-spotting locales on this corner of the continent.
Squamish River watershed, B.C.
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Carving its way through British Columbia’s Coast Mountains between Whistler and Vancouver, the Squamish River is one of the world’s best eagle-viewing spots, so much that an entire park, Brackendale Eagles Provincial Park, is dedicated to them. The eagles crowd along the salmon-littered banks of the Squamish and Cheakamus Rivers; a 1994 count broke the world record for number of eagles in one place, with 3,769 spotted in a single day.
Ironically, the park is closed to visitors in winter to protect the bald eagles from human encroachment. But don’t let that discourage you. Just take the Mamquam Road exit from Highway 99 and head north on Government Road to the main “Eagle Run” viewing area just outside the park. There, an interpretive display (including telescopes) explains the eagle and salmon life cycles. Eagle Watch volunteers are also on hand to answer questions each weekend through early February.
Another option is to take a float trip to see eagles. Sunwolf, a low-key, recreation-oriented riverside resort in the town of Squamish, takes guests on daily rafting trips on the Squamish River this time of year. Some stay in a Sunwolf cabin, while others take a day off from skiing at Whistler or make the 45-minute drive from Vancouver.
Sunwolf provides waterproof gear, but Jess Freese (who owns Sunwolf along with her husband, Jake, and guides rafting trips in both winter and summer) says that’s just in case of precipitation — the winter water is low, so this is a non-splashy trip.
“The river is shallow and teeming with salmon. We’re literally hitting fish with our oars, there are so many of them,” Freese said. And with so many fish around, “The trees are literally just decorated with eagles. In an hour, you can see anywhere from 100 to 400 birds.”
Upper Skagit River
Conveniently, many of the best viewing spots along the Skagit are right along Highway 20 as it traverses the 8,000-acre Skagit River Bald Eagle Natural Area between Rockport and Marblemount, Skagit County. The Skagit Eagle Festival in Concrete brings eagle lovers on weekends throughout January.
One informative point of entry is the Skagit River Bald Eagle Interpretive Center at Howard Miller Steelhead County Park in Rockport. It’s open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays from Dec. 7 through January, and daily during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Expert speakers are planned for most Saturdays at 1 p.m. On top of eagle-viewing information and equipment, the center features nature walks and guest speakers on most Saturdays.
Outfitters including Skagit River Excursions take visitors out on the river for float trips of a few hours to a full day.
Pend Oreille/Coeur d’Alene, Idaho
Just over the Washington-Idaho border, Lake Coeur d’Alene is an eagle hot spot, though numbers are typically lower than in areas closer to the coast. The Wolf Lodge Bay area is one of the best for seeing eagles, which the lake draws with its healthy kokanee salmon stocks. Coeur d’Alene Resort offers eagle-watching boat trips to the lake’s many quiet coves on weekends in December and daily between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Eagles also live year-round at Lake Pend Oreille, just to the north, and ospreys ply the waters of northern Idaho and the Spokane area year-round. This is also one of the Northwest’s best winter moose-spotting spots, so you’ll likely see these tree-munching behemoths in the area.
Klamath Basin, Ore.
Lying between the Cascades and high desert in southwestern Oregon, the Klamath Basin is an oasis for migrating birds and a key stop on the Pacific Flyway (up to 75 percent of the flyway’s migratory waterfowl pass through here). Amid the six refuges making up the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, Upper Klamath Lake is an easy resting spot replete with food for bald eagles — at about 500, the largest winter population in the Lower 48.
“We’ve seen 100 in a day and up to 35 at one time,” said Jim Chadderdon, who heads the Discover Klamath tourism bureau and lives near the lake. “They fatten up and they’re huge.” It’s easy to see birds from public parks and other access points along the lakeshore. The Klamath Basin Birding Trail makes things even easier with mapped-out routes.
The Klamath Basin Audubon Society hosts the Winter Wings Festival (formerly the Bald Eagle Conference) Feb. 13-16. While the festival celebrates all birds, bald eagles are the big draw. Another one: grebes that can literally run, upright, across the water. (Here’s video of the grebes. Pretty cool: watch.opb.org/video/2283653146.)
Christy Karras is a Seattle-based freelance writer.