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Bring an eagle eye to Washington

During a winter rafting trip on the Skagit River, the national bird's resurgence is plain, and inspiring, to see.

January 15, 2006|Eric Lucas | Special to The Times

Rockport, Wash. — AS we nudge the raft out into the surging current of the Skagit River, our guide, Jerry Michalec, challenges his six passengers to be the first to spot an eagle. "Sit anywhere on the thwarts or the side of the raft and look any direction," he suggests. "Just don't fall in the river."

Not that anyone would want to risk that. For bald eagles, the Skagit is a comparatively balmy winter vacationland, but for humans, it's bundle-up territory where hand warmers are indispensable accessories.

In 26 years of trips, Michalec has seen thousands of wintering bald eagles along the brawny, emerald Skagit, two hours north of Seattle. This is one of three prime West Coast winter homes for migratory eagles drawn by readily available food; the others are the Squamish River, near Whistler, Canada, and the Klamath Basin in southern Oregon and Northern California. Each attracts hundreds of eagles, sometimes more than 1,000. And each has become a popular, exotic winter wildlife-watching travel destination.

As it turns out, on today's float I'm the first to spot a bald eagle, perched in a tall cottonwood on the northern bank. I happen to glance behind us as the raft slides out of a long riffle, and notice the distinctive black oblong topped by white that signifies a roosting eagle. My prize is universal acclaim in our little waterborne community and renewal of a lifelong sense of fulfillment I've enjoyed at seeing wild creatures in their native surroundings.

Eagles are no longer a rare sight in the Pacific Northwest, from Northern California to southeastern Alaska. Their resurgence since the ban on DDT represents a turnaround from a low point about 1970, when there were fewer than 1,000 pairs in the Lower 48. Now half a dozen pairs nest in Seattle, for instance. Close to 1,200 nesting pairs are in California, Oregon and Washington. About 100,000 eagles now live in North America, more than a quarter of them in Canada's British Columbia province.

But sightings usually are of a lone bird, with its unmistakable 8-foot wingspan, circling 500 feet overhead in a thermal. On the Skagit in winter, visitors can see as many eagles in a day as they otherwise might see in a lifetime. With strong salmon runs that supply food from late November to late February and mile after mile of the tall cottonwoods that eagles favor for roosting, the river draws hundreds of the big raptors to a 17-mile stretch from Concrete to Marblemount.

"The first time I saw this, 23 years ago, it was so magical it was bewildering," recalls Libby Mills, a local naturalist whose advocacy helped create the Skagit River Bald Eagle Natural Area and who has helped count the birds almost every year since 1982. "Even after all these years, it's still glorious."

The preserve, founded by the Nature Conservancy in 1973, is now a 10,000-acre corridor along the river that affords crucial winter habitat for the raptors.

Our float trip begins near Marblemount and descends eight miles to Rockport. For the final five miles, the southern bank is Nature Conservancy land, and this is where we see the most eagles. Perched in the raft, swaddled in raingear, we peer through light sprinkles and gauzy mist to spot eagles ahead.

Michalec keeps count, and guides the raft nearer to a couple of trees where birds are perched particularly close to the river.

Close up, it's possible to discern the true colors of the birds -- not black and white, but dirty chalk and dark brown. We watch a mottled immature bald (they don't reach mature color until their fifth year) try to hoist a dead salmon from a gravel bank into a tree, but the decaying carcass escapes its grasp. The eagle flaps to a branch nearby, and Michalec adds it to our count.

In the end, as we come ashore in Rockport, we tabulate our last eagle, No. 70. Not as many as the hundreds that floaters sometimes see, but impressive nonetheless. As a bonus, we've seen 10 great blue herons and innumerable mergansers.

Another view

IT'S wonderful to float the river, but that's not the only way to see the Skagit eagles.

Many of the most popular viewing spots around Rockport are staffed by volunteer naturalists in the peak season, early December through late February. They set up spotting scopes and help visitors use them, and answer questions about eagles' life histories and habitat. It's a good occasion to learn how the river's whole ecosystem is interdependent -- and still threatened.

Japanese knotweed, for instance, an escaped decorative landscaping plant, is suppressing natural vegetation along the river, forming dense mats in which cottonwoods cannot take root.

On another early winter morning, a sunny, dry day in which dawn's mist has dissolved and the sky is watercolor blue, I visit a riverfront park for a more meditative eagle-watching session.

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