To the Moon! Swans in Skagit County. Washington State.
A few years ago, I was stuck in a bear jam along the Gardiner River in Yellowstone as a lone grizzly crossed the steep hill and contemplated crossing the road. He (or she) didn’t come down to the road, but literally hundreds of people stopped in anticipation. Behind me were two photographers from California and sitting in traffic we struck up a conversation and exchanged phone numbers. A few weeks ago, they called to say they were coming to Washington to photograph Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus).
Mt. Baker to the Salish Sea, Washington State.
They were headed my way because, for the past ten years, the place to see bald eagles is definitely 0n the Nooksack River, home to some six-hundred individuals right here in Whatcom County. The best time is usually now, over the holidays in December and January, as they feast on returning chum salmon.
Confluence of Middle and Nork Fork Nooksack River. Washington State.
However, this year was different. The salmon were there, visible within the eddy lines and decomposing on the sandbanks, but the eagles were low in number, and usually seen afar roosting in the treetops. For whatever reason, climate change, river levels (very high this year) or something else, the eagles were not as numerous or as visible feeding at ground level. Maybe it is just timing, and they may show up in the next week? But the usual salmon spawning and feeding times are closing out.
Food! Nooksack River, Washington State.
Over the past few weeks, I got some good photos – but my friends were not as lucky on their trip. We got together for a day and photographed short-eared owls along the meadows and found that the eagles we expected along the river had moved back to the farmlands and tidal flats. I am sure they were not that disappointed -- they did get days of sun and warm weather, amazing sunrises, and the beauty of the Pacific Northwest.
Stare Down! Nooksack River, Washington State.
A while back, before that Yellowstone trip, I spoke with a die-hard birder who was very disparaging of our local Bald Eagle population. Not sure of the exact quote, but something along the line of eagles “are like chickens,” suggesting you could see them everywhere and they are not that cool.
My first thought was that this person was definitely not from the east coast, mid-states, or any number of places where seeing a bald eagle is rare and a real treat. For many years I traveled the eastern coastal areas looking for eagles, down south in Florida, and then trips to Alaska just wishing to see an eagle (as were my friends from California). So I am absolutely thrilled to have eagles nearly everywhere locally, and I continue to be inspired as I watch them nest, feed, fly, and mate. There is a reason the bald eagle was chosen as our national emblem in 1972 and has been a spiritual symbol for native peoples for far longer).
Flight! Nooksack River, Washington State.
I must admit that they are usually proliferous around here. Depending on the season, you can easily find eagles hunting along the Salish Sea’s shores and coastal flats, soaring over farmlands, throughout the San Juan Islands, and roosting and fishing along nearby rivers and streams. It is estimated (2021) that over nine hundred breeding pairs of bald eagles reside here in Washington State, with another five-hundred-and-seventy breeding pairs in Oregon, and with over thirty-thousand living in Alaska.
Of course, it was not always that way. An estimated nine thousand bald eagle pairs lived in Washington State in the late 1700s. By the 1950s 400,000 of this species were eradicated across the United States except for small populations in Florida and Alaska (due to DDT, as well as identical reasons promoted today to allow killing of wolves and bears – as eagles were wrongly blamed for predation of young lambs and even children). In 1978 the bald eagle was put on the Endangered Species List except in Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin, where it was designated as threatened. The recovery for Bald Eagles locally (and nationally) was impressive and they were removed from the list of protected species in Washington State in 2016. They remain protected today under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protections Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the Lacey Act.
Bald Eagle. Skagit Flats, Washington State.
Some of my favorite areas for viewing bald eagles include: my home river, the Nooksack, where these photos were taken; the Skagit River and the Skagit River Bald Eagle Interpretive Center; further south along the Klamath River* on the Oregon/California border; across the BC border in Squamish and Brackendale (with a world record 3,769 eagles counted in 1994); and just outside of Haines, Alaska at the Chilkat Bald Eagle Reserve (good bear watching as well).
I am inspired by wildlife every day. Pumped to get out early, encountering the world as it first wakes up. Sitting beside the river, enjoying the early rays of sunrise, and even the cold, grey and misty mornings of the Northwest -- any time with my camera is quality time. And then, you watch two eagles doing cartwheels in the air, see a bear cub peak out around a tree, gaze at fox cubs tumbling outside their den, or observe the incredible journey of the salmon fighting to get back home – inspiration at every occurrence. Inspiration/magic/wonder – all attributes of our natural world.
Short-eared Owl. Skagit Flats, Washington State.
In addition to documenting nature, I hope my images help educate others about the wonders of nature and how fragile that nature can be. Photography is a great way to educate without preaching. Watching wildlife, observing nature, seeing this world’s amazing places, I hope my photography can take you there, take you beyond your usual experience, and connect you to all the wonder around us!
· If you enjoy my images and blog, Braided Rivers is an nonprofit organization that believes photography can inspire people to protect wild places through images and stories that change perspectives. Check them out!
· When I retired from the Whatcom Land Trust, my board provided a week-long photography course in Yellowstone National Park. Covid shut that down, but the instructor for that class was Meg Summers out of Cody Wyoming. Meg just recently won Outdoor Magazine’s Annual Wildlife Photo Competition. Congratulations!
· I have talked about the ethics of photography before, and just recently the Raincoast Conservancy released An Ethical Approach to Wolf Photography. Needed due to the number of threats faced by this species, their curious nature, and the growth of wolf watching tourism.
· *I mentioned salmon and eagles on the Klamath River, where just recently (after decades of discussion and planning) the decision was made to remove four dams on the Lower Klamath River. This would be the largest dam removal ever, and would reopen access to more than four hundred miles of habitat for threatened coho and Chinook salmon, and steelhead (and eagles of course!). Prior to the dams being built, the Klamath was one of the nation’s most productive salmon rivers. Congratulations to the tribes, states, nonprofit river warriors (and past colleagues), and others who helped make this happen.
· Closer to home, Seattle City Light, in relicensing their Skagit River dams, has said it has spent about $100 million on environmental mitigation to purchase over 13,000 acres for salmon habitat and other conservation land, to support endangered fish species, and to create a new Skagit Habitat Enhancement Program.