BIRD WATCH: ‘Last chance’ for eagle viewing coincides with month of Valentine’s

VALENTINES AND EAGLES are a strange combination, but in February, thoughts of both are in many minds.

Bald eagles are thinking about nesting. It won’t be long before they begin to move away from winter feeding grounds and head for their nesting territories.

Many of the birds that dined on spawned-out fish during the winter move northward to nest in Alaska and parts of Canada.

This movement of eagles influences the movement of bird-watchers. Audubon chapters have for decades scheduled eagle-viewing field trips during January and February. It’s like your “last chance.”

This scheduling was more important in the 1970s and ’80s when the eagle population was at a low point. The Skagit area from the Flats up the river to Marblemount was the most popular destination.

Field trips focused on seeing the large numbers of eagles congregated to feed on the river’s salmon. They still congregate in that region, but there are eagles to be seen throughout Western Washington.

The Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge between Tacoma and Olympia supports bald eagles. The rivers flowing from the Olympics into Hood Canal or the Pacific Ocean make the Peninsula a popular eagle-viewing destination.

Many of us enjoy eagle activity near our homes. This hasn’t always been the case.

The increase in eagle numbers throughout Western Washington is a conservation success story. It began over five decades ago when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed eagles on the Endangered Species list.

During the ’60s, the use of DDT as well as habitat loss and hunting had almost eradicated bald eagles over most of the country.

DDT is a chemical pesticide. When it builds up in a creature’s system, it affects the ability to reproduce.

In the case of eagles, it causes their eggshells to break before they hatch. Their diet of fish was responsible for the buildup.

The outdoor use of the pesticide was banned in 1972 and eagle numbers began to rise. The figures on eagle populations today, both in Washington and across the country, are amazing.

During the ’60s, there were less than 500 nesting bald eagle pairs throughout the contiguous 48 states.

Today, there are over 5,000. It is estimated that every state now has at least a hundred pairs.

Previously, many had no breeding eagles. After the eagle was listed as endangered, a reintroduction program began throughout the country.

One figure lists the entire bald eagle population in all of North America is now about 70,000. Another source estimates that more than half of the world’s bald eagle population is in Alaska and British Columbia.

The states with the largest eagle populations, after Alaska, are Florida, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Washington and Oregon.

While researching the eagles’ current status, some interesting facts surfaced. One was a major surprise for me.

Florida had the highest number of breeding pairs in all of the Lower 48 states. With nesting birds in 59 of 67 counties, the figure of 1,166 pairs is impressive.

A second surprise was learning that Minnesota now has the distinction of having the most breeding pairs. That number is estimated to be about 1,312 pairs.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the bald eagle from the federal Endangered Species list in 2007. Up until that time, eagle counts were taken on a regular basis. That is no longer the case.

Biologists suggest this bird is near carrying capacity in Western Washington. All of this is good news, but there will still be management decisions when it comes to habitat and discerning how large an eagle population can thrive in this region.

For now, Valentine’s Day is coming, and the eagles are wooing their mates.

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Joan Carson’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at P.O. Box 532, Poulsbo, WA 98370, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Email: [email protected].

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