TACOMA -- As chum salmon move into rivers across the Puget Sound to begin the final stage of their life cycle, you can be sure bald eagles are not far behind. The eagles have learned that the region's rivers and streams provide an ample food supply in the form of salmon carcasses.
During the winter, Washington serves as home to more than 1,500 bald eagles in locations including the Yakima Canyon, Lake Roosevelt, the Skagit River, Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, Grays Harbor and along the Columbia River.
"They are really a pretty ubiquitous bird here in the winter, after they come back from their summer feeding along the British Columbia coast," said Rob McNair-Huff, co-author of Birding Washington.
"Look along any river or stream where it runs into saltwater. That's where they are going to be hunting for fish," he said. "Like Chambers Creek, where the creek runs into the bay."
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McNair-Huff cited multiple reasons why bald eagles are so popular with birders, especially beginners.
"It's the bird that's associated with the United States. People universally know its place as our national bird," he said.
Like great blue herons, bald eagles are large birds that are easy to identity. Another reason, he said, is eagles' nests also are easy to spot.
"It's one bird that people who don't spend a lot of time looking at birds can identify," McNair-Huff said. "Everyone has a story when they saw a bald eagle."
While there are plenty of places to see eagles today, that hasn't always been the case.
"For people who have been around for a while, they can remember when there weren't a whole lot of eagles around. There was a point when the bald eagle was a threatened species," McNair-Huff said.
One of the most popular locations to look for bald eagles is along the upper Skagit River, from Concrete to Marblemount. For South Sound residents, it makes for a fun day trip with plenty of places to look for eagles.
Each winter, hundreds of eagles come to the river valley, looking to feed on salmon in the river and its tributaries. It is one of the largest wintering populations of bald eagles in the lower 48 states. Eagles can be seen typically from late November through February.
The best location to start your adventure is the Skagit River Bald Eagle Interpretive Center.
Skagit River Bald Eagle Interpretive Center
Where: Inside Howard Miller Steelhead County Park, 2809 Rockport Park Road, Rockport. The park also serves as a popular take-out for boaters drifting the river from Marblemount.
When: The center is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. all weekends, and daily Dec. 27-Jan. 1. There are guided walks at 11 a.m. weekends, and speakers at 1 p.m. Saturdays.
Admission: Free, but donations are requested to maintain operations.
Information: 360-853-7626, skagiteagle.org.
Skagit Eagle Festival
The Skagit Eagle Festival takes place each weekend in January. Events are held in Concrete, Rockport and Marblemount. For details, go to concrete-wa.com.
Other Skagit River locations
State Route 530 bridge: The bridge over the river offers good views upstream and downstream. The bridge is a short, easy walk from the interpretive center.
Skagit River Bald Eagle Natural Area: Located on the south side of the river, off Martin Road, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife area protects 2,450 acres of eagle winter habitat. A short trail leads from the parking area to the river. It is part of the 8,000-acre Skagit River Bald Eagle Natural Area that includes land managed by federal, state, county and city agencies, as well as The Nature Conservancy.
Rockport State Park: At night, eagles will perch on the branches of big old-growth trees, like those in the park. In the late afternoon, people hiking through the park might be rewarded with a chorus of chatterings and vocalizations from the night roosts high overhead.
Sutter Creek rest area: Located at milepost 100 on state Route 20, the tall trees along the riverbank make good roosting spots for eagles. Volunteers with Skagit Eagle Watchers and the U.S. Forest Service will be stationed here on weekends from Dec. 21-Jan. 26 with spotting scopes and binoculars.
Marblemount: The trees near the fish hatchery, off Cascade River Road, attract plenty of eagles. Pressentin County Park is another viewing location.
Allyn: Located on Case Inlet in the South Sound, this area attracts about a dozen eagles each fall and winter. A good spot to watch for the eagles is Allyn Waterfront Park as the birds fly along the shore looking for a meal.
Bellingham: The Nooksack River east of the city is a good destination. One of the best spots is a viewing pullout just east of milepost 20 on state Route 542. The peak time is usually early January.
Ellensburg: The drive along state Route 821 through the Yakima Canyon is worth the trip. There are plenty of eagles that winter along the Yakima River. In addition, you might see bighorn sheep and mule deer along the hillsides.
Hoquiam: The Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge just west of the city is a good place to start. Because the refuge attracts plenty of shorebirds and migrating waterfowl, it also attracts eagles.
Olympia: The Woodard Bay Natural Resource Conservation Area is located north of the city. The Overlook Trail on the south side of the bay is a good place to look for eagles. The Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge just off Interstate 5 also attracts eagles.
Rosburg: The Grays River as it flows south of this small town before reaching the Columbia River attracts dozens of eagles. The best viewing is from mid January to early February.
Sequim: A lot of eagles will congregate along the Discovery Bay side of Miller Peninsula. If the eagles are soaring overhead, don't expect to see any waterfowl on the bay. They will be hiding to avoid being attacked. The Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge is another option.
South Prairie: Walk or ride along the Foothills Trail east of this town and you will likely see bald eagles perched high in the tall streamside trees. A good spot is near the REI rest area.
Skagit Flats: The area where the Skagit River flows into Puget Sound, along Fir Island and Conway, is another good spot. The bonus of going there, you can see thousands of snow geese. If an eagle flies overhead, they'll likely take off.
Tacoma: There are plenty of locations around Commencement Bay to see eagles. Use binoculars and look for them on the pilings near the mouth of the Puyallup River and watch for them along Marine View Drive. At Point Defiance Park, look in the trees along the bluffs and the overlooks looking toward Gig Harbor.
Eagle viewing tips
w Try to be at a site between dawn and 11 a.m. During those hours, you might hear eagle twitterings and "chak-chaks" of feeding eagles.
w Bring along binoculars and spotting scopes. While many birds will be close enough to see, having optics will give you a much closer look.
w Do not get too close. Eagles feed by the river's edge where dead salmon wash up on river bars. When eagles are feeding, do not disturb them or approach too closely. Eagles waste valuable energy fleeing humans who come too close or create a disturbance.
w Cloudy or overcast days are the best days to see and photograph bald eagles. On such days, after eating, bald eagles will stay close to the river, perching in trees, digesting their morning meal, and conserving energy. On days with bright sun, eagles are more active and many seem to disappear as they ride updrafts thousands of feet in the air.