Wednesday December 7, 2011


Eagle-Eyed Tourists Treated To Rare Event 

The Chehalis Eagles Have Done It Again

Submitted by Karen Bills, Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival



t is hard after 60 years of following bald eagles and other raptors around the world to be awed by something so different, so excessive that it is truly record setting, but the eagles of the Chehalis flats have done it again. On our Sunday, Dec. 4, 2011, boat tour up the Harrison River the scene had been almost perfectly set.


As we drove up to Kilby, I stopped at my regular eagle counting points along Harrison Bay -- just over 650 eagles already along the beach and trees. But as we approached Kilby to get aboard the Fraser River Safari Tour boat I could already see several dozens of eagles soaring and streaming in long lines -- just taking advantage of the beautiful sunny day -- a day for eagles to soar and soar and soar.

Jo and Rob greeted the full tour with the normal emergency patter - where the life belts are, when a hot lunch would be served etc. - and then Jo passed the mike to me -- the honorary tour leader. And what an honor at any time to drive up the Fraser or to start, as today at Kilby, on the Harrison River for such a day's outing. But today, like so many weekends, seemed to set some incredible record. Today was going to be awesome just due to the spectacular weather and my guess that there would be over 5000 eagles in the 3 mile length of the feeding grounds. Only a few people in the world have ever seen 5000 eagles in one confined space so even with drizzle this is incredibly wonderful. But today the sun was sparkling.

However, today's tour started with an initial "thought of a downer"! As we came out from under the Highway 7 bridge and looked north into the great alluvial fan of the Chehalis -- where the gravel washed down the Chehalis Valley and spread out across the valley of the Harrison River, creating the best locations for thousands of spawning springs, coho and chum salmon -- I could see a couple of thousand eagles sitting on the gravel bars. My mind goes to, "Will we have more than the 4000 last week or set a new record?"

But, just in front of the eagles were two kayakers paddling up the center of the flats. What a devastation -- and disturbance of these birds essential quiet time for feeding. Then, as I feared the worse happened -- the eagles began to rise and depart. Damn. Not only were the eagles being driven off the feeding and loafing areas -- a very important need for these great birds -- but we were going to miss those shots looking west across the flats from the Harrison River channel. (See Christian's shots from last week!)

We were following the deeper main channel of the Harrison River to the east and it just seemed such an inconsiderate kayaker action to drive these birds off the world's greatest eagle feeding area. Eagles were flying everywhere.

The adjacent trees for three miles along the shore were ripe with bald heads. The juveniles sitting in the trees are much harder to see. Then the unexpected happened. Somewhere between one and two thousand eagles just suddenly fused together in great swirling and circling flocks that were coming together and separating. This gyrating mass of eagles, the gathering of 5 or 6 separate rising columns of air and eagles came together in the largest flock of eagles I have ever seen airborne at one time. Our
incredibly productive Harrison--Chehalis River complex not only supports the greatest annual gathering of bald eagles anywhere in North America but probably has more large birds of prey gathered here than anywhere ever experienced in the entire world.

So today, while we were still shy of the mid-December count of last winter (I counted 7362 bald eagles in less than 2 of these same miles from the FRS tour boat) the numbers are still building and this year the Harrison system has 50 times the number of available dying salmon. The feast could last for another month. The weather will entirely determine whether the dead fish
carcasses slowly drift onto the adjacent gravel bars for the eagles or get washed out, by more violent floods, to deeper waters where the carcasses are not available to the eagles. However, in the deeper waters, as evidenced by the numerous fish boats, the sturgeon are waiting to gobble up the decaying carcasses. Nothing is wasted.

So the trip, and I am sure I can speak for all guests, was an incredible show of eagles for experienced bird watchers or those just introduced to some of our natural wonders. The action was so intense I did not undertake a count. I prefer to do that early in the morning when the eagles are largely sitting on the ground eating or in the adjacent trees where I can count them 1 or 2 at a time. Counting upwards of 5000 is still exciting -- and time consuming! One or two thousand flying and gyrating eagles is not an easy count -- besides it was just awesome to watch.

If any of you have missed this local eagle phenomena (and that is aside from those of you who keep coming!!) you should try and get out before the carcasses and the eagles are gone. Our Foundation and Fraser River Safari Tours are planning two more jointly sponsored incredible tours for this coming and the following Saturday (Dec. 10 and 17, 11AM at Kilby -- call Jo
for reservations (1-866-348-6877 toll free). Make this your Christmas gift to be long remembered -- to you or others. The boat, featured in many of the photo collections by the guests on our site, is fully weather proof and designed for viewing the eagles, swans, seals etc.


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