Photography by Louise Christie
Look up. Look way up. If your eyesight is as good as a great blue heron's, you'll be able to spot black specks soaring above the Lower Mainland. Even if your vision is less discerning, get ready to welcome back bald eagles that are migrating south from summer feeding grounds in Alaska and B.C.'s central coast.
On the phone from the Hancock Wildlife Foundation in Surrey, David Hancock could barely contain his excitement. The honorary director of the annual Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival expressed amazement to Pique at what he'd witnessed during last year's bird count in the Harrison River estuary.
"Last fall was devastating for chum salmon on the Central Coast," he said, "and that totally shifted the pattern of eagles. Each day they arrived on the Harrison River by the hundreds. I was able to stand in one place and count 7,362, the largest concentration of raptorial birds in the world. The downside was that they were desperately looking to find food. The Chehalis River had a normal size run of coho. The eagles cleaned them out in three weeks. After they dispersed to places as far south as the Central Plains the count dropped to 370."
When Hancock first began photographing and writing about eagles in the early 1960s, the newly graduated UBC student could only find three nesting pairs of adults. Today he estimates there are over 360. What brought the increase?
"When I started to survey along the Fraser River in my light plane, it was only 10 years after Alaska had dropped their bounty on eagles. Because of pressure from fishermen, the state used to pay hunters a couple of bucks to destroy their national symbol. As a consequence, they eliminated most of the nesting birds."
What a difference a few decades makes. Hancock now proudly points out that during November, the Fraser Valley witnesses the largest concentration of eagles anywhere on the planet.
"I've travelled much of the globe and seen mammal predators migrate in large numbers, but there's nothing that compares with this among raptors. This is a class event in the world of wildlife, especially as it all takes place within a one-square-mile radius. And it's not just eagles. There are lots of swans, ducks, and geese. We just spotted a white heron."
Now in its 16th year, the festival takes place at a dozen locations between Mission and Harrison Hot Springs; four main eagle-spotting sites are centered on the Harrison and Chehalis river estuaries in the vicinity of the hamlet of Harrison Mills. That's where Rob and Jo-Anne Chadwick, operators of Fraser River Safari's jet boat eco river tours, take groups on the Harrison River during the festival. Jo-Anne is also the festival coordinator.
On the phone from Mission, she told Pique that she's most excited about a gathering at the Chehalis Healing House, or Sts'ailes Lhawathet Lalem, adjacent the Chehalis River. Salmon migrate as vigorously there as in the nearby Harrison River. Chadwick felt that of the eight activity sites on the festival roster, this gathering would be the most significant.
"The Chehalis [one of three local Sto:lo communities] welcome visitors to view dances, arts, and crafts, which I think is incredible," she said with obvious pride. "James Leon is going to lead guided interpretive walks to talk about the significance of eagles to the Sts'ailes [Chehalis] people, plus there's a traditional salmon barbeque. Although the tours are free, there's a charge for lunch, so plan ahead."
When Pique ventured out on the Harrison River during last year's festival, it was immediately apparent how prevalent eagles were. Tall snags rose above the estuary. On each branch rested a half-dozen or more white heads. Scowlitz First Nation members, whose land occupies the mouth of the Harrison's confluence with the Fraser River, view eagles as being closest to the spirit world. As such, the remnants of stately black cottonwoods on which the raptors perch are referred to as "spirit trees".
With food so close at hand, eagles can afford to be picky. Their preferred species is sockeye-which average between two and three kilograms-slightly less than the maximum weight an eagle can carry. Coho and chum are too heavy for the eagles, which, despite their size, only weigh two to four kilograms.
This summer's healthy return of salmon to the Fraser notwithstanding, Hancock forecast continuing trouble for the eagles. "From what I'm hearing from my friends in Bella Bella and Prince Rupert, there are a more fish on the coast this year but still not great. My gut feeling is we'll have 1,500-to-2,000, a few more than normal. It'll be an exciting time for the festival."
A seat in a jet boat is one of the best places to view birds in the estuary at the foot of the sheer-sided, cloud-draped highlands that back onto the river, especially the first tour each day with Hancock as the on-board guide. Failing that, be sure to catch one of his midday talks at the Tapadera Estates viewing site, one of two locations that feature spotting scopes. You'll never look at eagles, or the surrounding landscape, the same after an encounter with the loquacious raconteur.
Access: The Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival takes place November 19-20 at various locations around Mission and Harrison Hot Springs. For a complete listing of events, visit the Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festivals website fraservalleybaldeaglefestival.ca. To view eagle nest web cams, visit the Hanckock Wildlife website hancockwildlife.org
Pique contributor Jack Christie is the author of The Whistler Book (Greystone Books). For more information, visit www.jackchristie.com