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Feature - The winter home of the eagles

Brackendale Eagle Reserve is a product of volunteers' efforts

Counting bald eagles as they feast on salmon during a crisp January morning in Brackendale is an experience Thor Froslev describes as "something poetic".

After 32 years in the district Froslev admits he still gets a thrill from watching the eagles when they come to nest in the area.

Hundreds of North America's most famous eagles arrive in Brackendale, 40 minutes south of Whistler, around mid-November and their population steadily grows until they leave in March, but the most important day of the season is Jan. 4.

On Jan. 4, 2004 about 60 volunteer counters and scores of tourists will arrive for the 18th annual Brackendale Eagle Count.

"It really is incredible to see these big birds and the way their tails flip into the water," Froslev explained.

"I mean, these are not little chickens, these are big birds: the adults have a wing span of six feet and weigh around 10 or 12 pounds."

The Brackendale Eagle Count began in 1986 but the area, and eagles who migrate there, made headlines in 1994 when volunteers counted a world record 3,769 bald eagles in one day.

This count was significant because of its size, but also because it was an indication of how strongly the species had bounced back from a time when they were hunted for money and endangered by chemicals such as DDT.

DDT was first registered in Canada in 1946 and marketed as a wonder chemical that could be used to control insect pests in crops as well as in domestic and industrial applications. DDT and other pesticides were sprayed on plants and eaten by small animals, which were later consumed by birds of prey.

Research proved that DDT harmed both the adult birds and the eggs that they laid. The eggshells became too thin to withstand the incubation period and were often crushed.

If they survived incubation many eggs did not hatch because of the high content of DDT.

Tests later found large quantities of DDT in the fatty tissues and gonads of dead bald eagles, which was evidence that the chemical contributed to many of them becoming infertile.

In response to a raft of world-wide environmental and safety concerns, most uses of DDT were phased out during the mid-1970s.

"That was a major problem in the 1950s with the DDT being sprayed everywhere and affecting their eggs," says Froslev.

"But even before that, after World War II, the fishing companies in Alaska put a bounty on the bald eagles because they were taking the salmon.

"The problem was that there were a lot of people with guns who needed quick money around the end of World War II.

"For the hunters to collect their bounty they had to bring in the talons and it was recorded. According to those records, about 100,000 talons were delivered during this period."

With these historical setbacks in mind, and a world record count to bargain with, in the early 1990s the Brackendale community began a push to have their eagle sanctuary officially recognized by the provincial government.

In 1996 their wish was recognized and the Brackendale Eagle Reserve is now in the final stages of being approved as a Class A wildlife sanctuary.

The Class A rating means the area will be protected from activities such as logging and mining or any other development that could affect the eagles' habitat.

Brian Clark, from the Ministry of Water, Land and Air protection, said the eagle volunteers in Brackendale deserve a lot of credit for their efforts.

"A Class A park signifies the highest level of provincial park. The final documents are drafted and written and just waiting for final review," Clark said.

"I think there's nothing to be worried about long-term because they're (the eagles) a healthy population.

"But they're the sort of animal that could be badly effected by human action; action such as logging their cottonwood habitat would affect things.

"When this (park) is approved the agreement will outline that the area is for the purpose of nesting and feeding for eagles only, and anything else that hinders that purpose will not be allowed."

Clark added that the eagle data provided by the volunteers was used by many environmental agencies.

"We provide the park but the volunteers do the rest," he said.

"The eagle count provides very useful data for us and is used internationally as well.

"The year-to-year trends is not so useful, but the long-term trends help us compare populations over all areas."

There are only a few areas outside of Alaska where the bald eagles congregate and, according to Clark, Brackendale is one of the most significant sites in the world.

"South of Alaska this area is very big and important because they don't have too many of these birds left in the States, and in Brackendale they're very easy to spot.

"It's a credit to the volunteers who have raised the profile of the eagle reserve."

The other incentive for volunteers in Brackendale is tourism, because bird watching is a treasured pastime by many North Americans and Europeans alike.

"Most people live their whole lives and see one eagle and they think it's special. You go Brackendale and you can see thousands," Clark said.

"The Brackendale area is representative of a West Coast cottonwood habitat on a flood plain where there is ample roosting. In some trees you'll see 50 eagles, which is an impressive display, and you don't need binoculars.

"I think wildlife and bird watching is way up there (in tourism popularity) because most people who come to Squamish come for the eagles.

"The eagles have certainly been a big draw here for many years and the efforts of volunteers has only helped make that reputation grow."

Despite the bald eagle's prominence is Canada, it's actually the national bird of the United States.

It is found over most of North America, from Alaska and Canada to northern Mexico, but about half of the world's 70,000 bald eagles live in Alaska.

There are 20,000 eagles in B.C., which makes the northwest coast of North America by far their greatest stronghold.

They flourish here mostly because of the salmon that swim up rivers to spawn and die at this time of year.

Not all eagles migrate, but the bald eagles must when some of the lakes and streams they feed in freeze.

During the migrating process, eagles ride columns of rising air called thermals and can average speeds of 50 km/h.

In the Brackendale region eagles can be seen effortlessly gliding on strong thermals up to high altitudes.

Froslev said he expects between 500 and 1,000 tourists to visit Brackendale every weekend during January to watch the eagles, but Jan. 4 will be the biggest day.

On Jan. 4 the eagle counters will meet at the Brackendale Art Gallery and be assigned to 17 different areas. Most of the counters are experienced locals but all of them are assisted by at least two other people.

One of the youngest assistants this year is 12-year-old local Chris Brant, whose family has been involved in the count since it began. Brant said the count was something that appealed to people of all ages.

"It's really kind of cool to watch them swoop down on the fish early in the morning," Brant says.

"I was really amazed once when they had a live adult eagle at the art gallery for us to look at - they're huge."

Brant said he enjoyed watching the younger birds learn how to fly.

"The younger ones can be bigger than the adults because they need the size to learn how to fly.

"You can tell if they're young because they're completely brown, so they can camouflage themselves well into the trees."

Anyone visiting Brackendale can view the eagles independently or choose to take guided walking tours. Horse and boat tours are also available.

Base camp for the official eagle count is at the Brackendale Art Gallery. Froslev, who is the chief counter and the owner of the art gallery, operates walking tours from noon every day for $35. Lunch is included.

To celebrate the count, the art gallery will also host speakers every Saturday in January.

Photojournalist Keith Thirkell will open the talks on Saturday, Jan. 3 with a display on the "photographic impressions of western Canada".

Acclaimed Canadian wildlife artist Robert Bateman hosts a fundraiser on Jan. 10 and Roy Hamaguchi, who has had his wildlife photos appear on postage stamps, has a display on Jan. 17.

On Jan. 24 biologist, conservationist and writer David Hancock will share his thoughts on the bald eagles. The final show, on Jan. 31, features naturalist Terry Brown and singer/songwriter Judy Abrams in a musical presentation.

To make a booking at the gallery or for more information call 604-898-3333.

Other companies who run tours of the Brackendale eagle reserve include:

Canadian Outback Adventures - 1-800-565-8735: Walking and boat tours from $69

Sun Wolf - 1-877-806-8046: Boat tours from $89 and overnight stays from $124

Elaho Adventures - 1-800-713-7238: Twice daily boat trips from $89

Sea to Sky Stables - 1-866-898-3934: Horse riding tours (call for rates)

ª Fun Spirit Adventure Tours - 1-877-600-8735: Guided walks from $18 and boat trips from $86