My recent trip to the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve near Haines, started out slow, taking a total of three days of travel by air and ferry. After overnight stops in Seattle and Juneau and a 4.5 hour trip on an Alaska Marine Highway Ferry ship, the M/V Malaspina, I finally reached Haines. It was long haul, but definitely worth the effort to see some of the most magnificent birds on the planet congregate in one spot.
As many as 2,000 to 3,500 bald eagles come to the area at the confluence of the Tsirku and Chilkat Rivers because of the availability of spawned-out salmon and open waters in late fall and winter. The open water is due to a deep accumulation of gravel and sand that acts as a large water reservoir whose temperature remains 10 to 20 degrees warmer than the surrounding water temperature. This warmer water seeps into the Chilkat River, keeping a five mile stretch of the river from freezing. In 1982, the 48,000 acre area was designated as the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve.
I was on the Chilkat River last year and I would have to say the number of bald eagles was down. That’s not to say you still didn’t see dozens upon dozens of eagles roosting in large cottonwood trees that line the river’s bank and just as many on the river flats and gravel bars. My observations may be on target. Supposedly, a weak and later than normal salmon run affected the number of birds sighted. Similar situations along the coast of British Columbia and southeast Alaska were reported by the Vancouver Sun and Montreal Gazette in stories that say that bald eagles are searching for food elsewhere.
There were a couple of other factors that also influenced the number of eagles I saw this year. On one day, there were incredible winds blowing down the Chilkat River from nearby mountains and glaciers. The forecast that day called for winds of 30 miles per hour with sustained gusts of 55 miles per hour (unofficially, I would say the wind speeds were higher than the forecast). At times, the river valley looked like it was enveloped in fog, but in reality, the “fog” was blowing dust. Earlier, I posted one of my field report iPhone videos that shows the wind (link below). The eagles didn’t seem to appreciate the high winds and many left their Chilkat River roosts for more protected nearby valleys. I called it quits that day when I began to taste the dust in my mouth and headed back to the car having been outside for most of the day in the single-digit wind chill weather.
While all the wind and dust shooed off many of the bald eagles for a couple of days, there was a side benefit. I have always heard that during times of volcanic eruptions, sunrises and sunsets tend to be spectacular because of the dust they spew. Taking that into account, I made sure I was in position the following morning for what turned out to be a spectacular sunrise over the developing ice flows of the Chilkat River. Whether this sunrise was affected by the blowing dust, I don’t know, but the sunrise with the ice forming on the river was special.
Another factor that probably influenced the lower number of birds was on average warmer temperatures (highs in the mid to lower 30’s F). Normally, portions of the river will freeze forcing the bald eagles to concentrate even further. This year, there was only one day of real snow, and only one day of any sign of ice on the river, hence the eagles were more spread out.
The final factor that influenced my shooting was an unusually large number of fisherman from the Yukon. Because of the late salmon run, fisherman descended on the river during prime eagle viewing time. Their presence on the river flats would scatter the eagles, forcing me to discover new places to photograph the birds. This turned out to be a good thing because I found several new spots equally as good, if not better.
There are a fair number of photographers on the river at this time of the year. Many are part of organized “photo tours” and I would go out of my way to avoid them. For most of the time on the river I was either by myself or perhaps with another photographer. Because the prime stretch of eagle viewing is about five miles long, getting away from the pack wasn’t a problem.
Early in the trip I took a side trip to the Chilkoot River near Chilkoot Lake. This is the area where last year l photographed the leucistic eagle with white wing tips and talons. This year the area was devoid of eagle activity. It was also hard to believe that only 3 months earlier the narrow Chilkoot River and the Chilkoot Lake State Recreation Site was jammed with dozens and dozens of fisherman and tourists along with — grizzly bears. In November, I was the sole person and virtually the only visible living being in the area. As for the leucistic bald eagle, I found out that it had been spotted on the Chilkoot River about a month before I had arrived this year but had since moved on.
Like the previous year, my days started in the field before sunrise which was at a reasonable time of 7:45 a.m.. I found that early mornings had the most activity, and the time between 11 a.m. and noon having the best light for photographing action. Normally, this wouldn’t be a good time for photography but keep in mind that the sun is very low on the horizon at this time of the year in Alaska. The sun being low on the horizon also means that sunset comes early, around 3:45 p.m. Actually it gets dark earlier because the sun falls behind the Takhinsha Mountains even sooner.
Finally, those of you who follow me on Facebook and Twitter, already know about the sad story of two cubs born this year who became orphans when their mother was illegally shot in the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve two days before I arrived. Over the course of my time on the Chilkat River, I would come across the cubs, playing with each other or catching a salmon for dinner. Alaska wildlife officials hoped that a zoo could be located to take the cubs, but that wasn’t to be the case. While it wouldn’t be impossible for them to survive the harsh Alaska winter the odds are against them. I’m particularly worried that they won’t know how to build a den to hibernate, or that a male grizzly will kill them. Hopefully, I’ll see them next November.
Coming later this week: A photographic look at the beauty of the Chilkat River valley.
ABOVE: Slideshow of images taken on my trip to the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve on the Chilkat River near Haines, Alaska. (Slideshow requires Adobe Flash).
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