Birding Seattle's Skagit

Along the Skagit
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One of the premier birding events, in fact, takes place during the coldest months of the year. Just an hour north of downtown Seattle, the beautiful Skagit River wends its way through the Skagit Valley, a highly scenic countryside of working farms and small rural towns. Fed by the glaciers of the North Cascade mountains, the Skagit attracts a sizeable annual run of pink and coho salmon. As these fish spawn and die, their bodies collect along the watercourse, providing a yearly feast for bald eagles.

Many of these eagles spend their summers in Alaska. As the days grow shorter and colder, they begin to move south along the Pacific coast. By late October or early November, the first eagles are appearing along the Skagit, where they loaf in mature cottonwood trees along the river and monitor the progress of the salmon run. Adult birds, with their brilliant white heads and tailfeathers, are joined by numerous juveniles, colored a deep bronze, often with mottled patches of white on their wings or tails.

As the salmon run peaks and fish carcasses accumulate, eagle numbers continue to grow. By the second or third week of January, there may be several hundred individuals scattered up and down the river corridor. These magnificent birds are quite solitary and not given to doing things in bunches. During the typical visit, one sees perhaps a dozen or more, juveniles and adults, doing all the various things bald eagles do: soaring, roosting in trees or sitting on the ground, and, best of all, fishing. This is the real treat: a bald eagle leaves its riverside perch, descending in a graceful glide on wings spanning seven feet; it cruises just above the water and with one effortless motion plucks a dead or dying salmon from the surface with its talons, then takes the prize to a quiet stretch of shoreline or to another tree, to begin feeding.

Juvenile eagles, which lack the cool expertise of the grownups, are known to provide comic relief. They blow their approaches and miss the fish entirely; they come in too fast and end up half submerged in the river; they may rise up with a fat salmon only to have it slip from their talons and splash down again. The youngest and most inexperienced dispense with aerial maneuvers altogether, and hop along the edge of the water like barnyard fowl, looking for a salmon washed onto the rocks, where they can snag the fish and drag it ashore. As much a scavenger as a hunter, adult bald eagles have no reservations about stealing salmon from these hardworking juveniles.

Where to Go

These and other wonderful sights await visitors to the Skagit River during late fall and into the heart of winter. Binoculars are essential, and spotting scopes are excellent for close-up looks at roosting individuals. Several areas in the Skagit Valley offer prime viewing, including the Skagit River Bald Eagle Natural Area. Along State Route 20, two good spots are found at mileposts 99 and 100; the Howard Miller Steelhead County Park, located near the town of Rockport, is another good spot.

During the prime viewing season, an interpretive center in the town of Rockport is well worth a visit. Programs at the Skagit River Bald Eagle Interpretive Center (open Friday to Sunday, plus holiday Mondays, December 10 through February 21) include guided walks, slide shows, and guest speakers highlighting bald eagles and their place in the ecology of the Pacific Northwest. A great many people also show up for the annual Upper Skagit Eagle Festival, scheduled for February 5-6, 2005. During the festival a series of “eagle watch” viewing areas are set up and hosted by knowledgeable volunteers. How many salmon does a bald eagle consume each week? Where do the eagles go from here? What are the effects of a declining salmon run on bald eagle populations? These folks will have answers to most any and all questions.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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