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Holiday Migrations!

All photos below are on the Nooksack River, December 2023.

All species follow similar patterns during the winter months, most often by some form of hibernation or migration. For the human species, some spend warm, cozy evenings at home, while others travel (migrate) far afield to be with family and friends or to return to locations where we grew up, went to school, worked, started a family, or made fast and lifelong friendships. Wherever you spent the holidays, I hope it was wonderful and full of family, friends, and great memories!

While the concept of the holidays may be lost on other species, they are naturally driven by season, migration patterns, and weather. With each person or creature, as the days grow longer, the concept of family, warm cozy times, and looking forward to spring is something shared by all.

A Plethora of Eagles!

Grizzly and black bears are deep in their dens with cubs expected sometime in January or February. Pikas, who do not hibernate, are running around in their furry coats, jumping between hay piles (food) that they collected earlier (pikas’ high metabolism keeps their body temperature at 104° F). Other wildlife use migration to manage winter weather. Elk moves from the mountains to the valleys; bighorn sheep move lower as well and head over to south-facing slopes. Mountain goats are tough but seek shelter on the lee side of the peaks. Whatever the species, winter is a time for survival, slowing down, staying warm, and focusing on family.

When we think about migration, we often think of birds flying from the north or south depending on the time of year. But for the bald eagle, migration is more about food availability, the age of the bird, and where it lives and nests. While eagles can migrate as far as 225 miles in a day, breeding and nesting eagles usually move only far enough from their nest to survive (finding food). In the north, adults migrate when lakes and rivers begin to freeze over. They don’t necessarily head south, but travel in several directions to find open water.

Each winter, just in time for the holidays, thousands of bald eagles head for the Pacific Northwest, coming from across the western states and south from Alaska, Canada, and the Yukon Territories to feed on the winter run of chum salmon in the cold glacial waters of the Skagit and Nooksack Rivers here in northwestern Washington State.

For years, the Skagit was the place to see eagles and salmon, and it is still a good place to start. But over the past ten to thirty years, migrating eagles by the hundreds have converged on the North, South and Middle Forks of the Nooksack due to food availability, clean free-flowing water, nesting opportunities close to the river, the accumulation of woody debris (fish hide-outs), and other factors. Why that shift?

The Skagit was one of the first rivers in Washington (1978) to be recognized for its Wild and Scenic values. Three of its tributaries, the Sauk, Suiattle, and Cascade Rivers are recognized as “scenic,” and in 2014 another fourteen miles of Illabot Creek was added to as “wild” and “recreational.” But the Skagit is also home to three major dams which have significantly altered the river’s free-flowing nature. Over the past few years, the impacts from these dams (all built before Wild and Scenic designations) have dramatically reduced salmon carcass availability which has led to a steady decline of both salmon runs and eagles. For nearly a hundred years, these dams restricted fish passage, altered the natural river flow, and obstructed downstream sediments necessary for great salmon habitat.  Lowered flow, lowered salmon, lowered numbers of feeding eagles!

Head north to the Nooksack (about seventy miles as the eagle flies). While the Nooksack has been targeted for new dam construction more than forty-seven times, today it continues to remain free flowing except for one small dam located above the range for anadromous fish species. It’s cold, clear, oxygenated waters originate at over nine-thousand-feet on the glaciers on Mount Shuksan (derived from the Lummi word [šéqsən], said to mean "high peak." The traditional name of Mount Shuksan in the Nooksack language is Shéqsan ["high foot"] or Ch’ésqen ["golden eagle"]. For these reasons, while smaller than the Skagit, the Nooksack has supported a greater chum salmon run for years.

I believe the Nooksack is now eagle central in large part because of the care and protections provided by local and state governments, the value placed on the land and rivers by our local tribes (Whatcom County is located on the unceded territory of the Coast Salish Peoples, including our indigenous Lummi Nation and Nooksack Tribe), and especially the hard work and programs targeting salmon and habitat recovery, and permanent protections, by local nonprofits.

The Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association (NSEA) has removed over one hundred and thirty barriers to fish and opened over one hundred and fifteen miles of upstream habitat. NSEA also involves local communities in planting trees and shrubs to restore function in a river and creating salmon rearing and spawning habitat. Over the years (now approaching its forty year anniversary in 2024) the Whatcom Land Trust has permanently protected more than thirty separate properties in close proximity to the three forks of the Nooksack.  Some protect and restore rich tributary streams and side channels, home to salmon spawning and beaver ponds, others protect nearby and critical night roosting areas that allow eagles to stay close to their feeding grounds. Together, these properties provide an important patchwork of protected areas that allow salmon to be salmon, eagles to be eagles, and for that combination to result in one of North America’s best places to watch the interaction of salmon and eagles each year starting just before Christmas and running until just after the New Year.

So, as we move into 2024, my first New Years resolution is to expand my thinking, writing, and intentions to include families of all species on this earth. Clean air and water, protected habitat, and increased love and consideration for salmon, bears, eagles, and others, are ours to give. I hope you will join me in keeping other species in mind, and doing all you can to make the earth a better place for everyone and everything. Happy New Year!

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