Snowy conditions hamper annual Brackendale eagle count 

A total of 641 eagles observed, down from 1,617 last year

click to enlarge PHOTO BY  RYAN ORIECUIA - FLICKR.COM/PHOTOS/OREOCOOKIES© CREATIVE COMMONS; SOME RIGHTS RESERVED - EAGLE EYE A bald eagles swoops in for a landing on the shores of the Squamish River.
  • Photo BY Ryan Oriecuia - flickr.com/photos/oreocookies© creative commons; some rights reserved
  • EAGLE EYE A bald eagles swoops in for a landing on the shores of the Squamish River.

Battling snowy conditions, which hampered visibility, Sea to Sky bird watchers tallied the third lowest count in 29 years at the annual Brackendale Winter Eagle Count.

With a storm watch in effect for much of the coast on Sunday, Jan. 4, there were 641 eagles observed throughout the day. This is well below last year's total of 1,617, when conditions were much more favourable. Volunteers tallied 804 eagles the year before and 655 in 2012.

"You probably like all that snow up in Whistler," joked eagle count founder Thor Froslev, "but you can have it."

Froslev started the Brackendale count nearly three decades ago, calling it "the grandfather of eagle counts in North America." He also organizes the annual Brackendale Winter Eagle Festival, which runs through January at his Brackendale Art Gallery.

Even with a low tally this year, the count was considered a success, said Judith Knapp, coordinator of the Squamish Eagle Watch Program (EWP).

"It was probably the worst day all year we could have done the count," she said, adding that some of the 50 volunteers even struggled to make the drive to the art gallery to pick up supplies in the morning.

"There were lots of elements this year that were not picture perfect, but to get that many eagles I think was pretty good."

Knapp believes the low numbers can also be attributed to recent heavy rains in the area that washed out dead salmon from some of Squamish's channels, forcing eagles further inland to spawning beds.

Members of the EWP will also be on the lookout this winter for increasing numbers of northern eagles that Knapp said are flying south later in the season due to remaining open water in the Arctic caused by the effects of global warming.

"Normally they start coming down here to Squamish in October or November," she explained. "But this year, with the Arctic still open because of the slight climate change, there was lots of open water and they were still able to get food."

An even bigger concern in Froslev's mind is the B.C. fishing industry's increasing reliance on fish farms, which he believes have contaminated the province's salmon population — a vital food source for eagles — by feeding them fish oil and processed ingredients.

"The fish farms are killing our salmon stock," he said. "It's not just eagles suffering due to the salmon disappearing, it's the bears and the wolves and all the rest of the world."

But there have been some positives too this year for the region's wintering bald eagles, according to Knapp.

"We're seeing far more juvenile eagles and that's a very good sign because it takes them five years to mature before they actually mate for life and start to raise their own young," Knapp said. "When you see lots of juveniles, you know (the population's) healthy."

It's also been a good year for the Eagle Watch Program, with healthy membership numbers and the group's expanding reach into schools across the corridor.

"We're hooking up more with the Sea to Sky school district," Knapp said, highlighting several school visits planned for January. "I'm really into the education side of things and having our young people become more environmentally aware."

Most recently, Knapp and Froslev have spoken to Grade 11 and 12 students from Pemberton, as well as the entire Coast Mountain Academy student population about the importance of preserving the natural surroundings and wildlife.

"It's not just about the eagles; we talk about the ethical viewing of wildlife," said Knapp.

"The wintering bald eagles come here to be safe, protected and have good food sources, but as soon as humans start interfering, then they scare the birds into flying and they burn up the energy they need to survive through the cold nights in the winter. It's all connected."

Knapp has also reached out to Quest University in Squamish to gauge interest in offering a credit program, and will work with the Howe Sound Secondary School students taking part in a leadership program in the New Year.

"Because we've reached out to the schools more, we're getting students bringing their parents up on the weekends. We also have some students participating in the program with their grandparents, so that's exciting," she added.

"We may not have as many eagles on the dyke right now, but we sure have a lot of enthusiasm."

To volunteer with the EWP, email eaglewatchsquamish@gmail.com.

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