Squamish Eagle Watch Program soars into 19th season 

Volunteer training session set for Nov. 6

click to enlarge PHOTO BY LIZ BARRETT / COURTESY OF THE SQUAMISH EAGLE WATCH PROGRAM - peak season More than 1,600 eagles in Squamish were counted on a single day in January this year.
  • Photo BY Liz barrett / Courtesy of the Squamish Eagle Watch Program
  • peak season More than 1,600 eagles in Squamish were counted on a single day in January this year.

In 1994, a world record 3,769 bald eagles were counted at the annual Brackendale Winter Eagle Festival and count.

But with the record number of eagles came a record number of people hoping to see them — which led to some problems.

The following year, conservation biologists Barry Booth and Markus Merkens produced a report on Squamish's wintering eagles.

"The report identified the threat of eagle viewing to the health and welfare of the wintering bald eagles, and recommended that a conservation strategy be implemented in order to moderate the influence of people," said Judith Knapp, program coordinator of the Squamish Eagle Watch Program (EWP).

The EWP was a direct result of that report.

Now in its 19th year, the program has had great success in ensuring the eagles return each winter.

Knapp has been with it for five. This year marks her first as coordinator.

"My husband and I really enjoy it, so I thought well, I'll rise to the call and take it on," she said.

Knapp is just one of the several volunteers who have kept the program running for nearly two decades.

On Thursday, Nov. 6 at the Squamish Adventure Centre, the EWP will once again hold a volunteer training session for anyone interested in becoming an interpreter.

"The training program is pretty comprehensive," Knapp said.

Not only are volunteers trained in Eagle specifics — like their habitat, biology and characteristics — they also get a crash course in visitor safety and the ecosystem surrounding Squamish.

"We kind of involve all of the natural life around us while we do our talks, and we do focus a lot on the different types of salmon, their life cycle, and the importance of not disturbing them in the streams," Knapp said, adding that the volunteer program is open to anyone.

"We have quite a few families that come out (to volunteer)... and the little ones are amazing," she said.

"Young ones are wonderful ambassadors... they talk to the other young kids that come, and they talk to them about the eagles and how to keep them safe."

The season kicks off in earnest with an opening ceremony on Saturday, Nov. 19 at 10 a.m. at the Brackendale dyke.

After that, volunteers will be at the dyke every weekend until February.

You'll likely see a variety of eagle action depending on what time you join them.

"You'll see lots of activity in the morning," Knapp said.

"They'll be diving into the water looking for salmon, and if they've caught some... three or four eagles will be fighting over the catch."

If you watch closely, you'll see the mature eagles imparting lessons to the juveniles.

"So they're doing all these antics where they're showing them how to shake their wings and be aggressive and chase the other ones away," Knapp said.

"And then they let the juveniles come and eat a little bit."

In the afternoon hours, the eagles usually take time to clean themselves, Knapp said.

"Because they get quite grimy, they'll go down and actually get into the water and wash themselves, and then they'll shake their wings and hang (them) out to dry," she said.

"On sunny days, they're all bathing. It's just wild. They're out there with the crows and everybody, and squawking."

While the emphasis is on observing the eagles, at its core the EWP is really about education and conservation.

"The education piece, that's really, really important," Knapp said.

The EWP partners with schools in the Sea to Sky corridor to help teach students the importance of the eagle, and how everything in the ecosystem is connected.

"Like right now, if we didn't have this rain, the salmon could not come up to the spawning channels, and the eagles would not come," she said.

"Then no nitrogen would be put back into the earth. No new little salmon would be born.

"That whole chain of events we talk about."

While the eagle count numbers have never been quite so high as that record-breaking count in 1994, the EWP has helped ensure the eagles have a winter home to return to.

Last year, 1,617 eagles were counted in the area in a single day.

And while keeping those numbers high is important to the program and its volunteers, the satisfied reactions recorded by visitors in the EWP's guest book is satisfying too.

"People come from all over the world, and they always write 'Awesome, I can't believe it, this is so incredible!'" Knapp said.

To volunteer with the EWP, email eaglewatch@squamish.ca.



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