Fall eagle forecast on the rise

Eagle photographers along the Chilkat River. (Credit: John Hagen)

Raptors and bird enthusiasts alike flock to Haines for the Bald Eagle Festival, when the world’s highest concentration of eagles gathers on the Chilkat River.

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Last year, the bird count spiked — and numbers are even higher this year.

It’s eagle season in Haines.

“This time of year is particularly special,” Sidney Campbell, the Education and Outreach Coordinator at Haines’ American Bald Eagle Foundation, said. “The hydro-geology of the Chilkat is really unique. This river freezes a lot later than the other ones, so we have a really late run of salmon — and that’s what the eagles come for.”

The foundation capitalizes on the birds in its backyard: as the salmon attract eagles, the foundation welcomes visitors for the Annual Bald Eagle Festival.

Visiting photographers, birders, and scientists gives Haines’ economy a bump between cruise and ski seasons. But Campbell said the event isn’t just aimed at outsiders.

“I think the biggest thing this year is that we really want this to be a community event,” Campbell said. “Almost every event during the festival is going to be free to Haines locals. And we’d really really like them to come in and meet with us and talk with us and see what we do.”

Opportunities include hearing scientist Rachel Wheat share her Ph.D. research on Chilkat Valley eagles, a film screening with the Takshanuk Watershed Council, Alaska Native dance and storytelling — and plain old-fashioned eagle watching.

Which could be particularly good this year.

Pam Randles spent a decade doing scientific eagle counts, and passed the torch to Chloe Goodson two years ago. After years of decline, the women say birds counted on the Chilkat seem to be rising.

“For the previous four years, we were getting counts in the 700 to 900 level,” Randles said. “For [Chloe] to be getting over a thousand — 1300, almost 1400 — that’s a difference.”

That’s good news for visiting eagle observers. Randles thinks it’s good for residents, too.

“The eagles directly reflect the salmon run. Salmon, as you probably know, in this area, is crucial to the economy,” Randles said.

Randles said eagle counts can also illustrate environmental changes. The Tsirku Delta on the Chilkat River attracts eagles because other rivers — other food sources — freeze over sooner.

Fewer eagles at the Tsirku could indicate less ice throughout the Chilkat Valley.

“If there is more open water and more access to food for the eagles, they’re going to take advantage of that instead of being crowded into the Tsirku fan area. I think it’s an indicator of climate change,” Randles said.

While two years of elevated eagle numbers don’t prove a lasting trend, Randles and Goodson will keep counting. Their data reaches back to the late 80s, and soon they hope to synthesize what three decades of eagle populations can illustrate about changes in the Chilkat Valley.

For Sidney Campbell and the foundation, that link between the birds and the environment motivates the Festival.

“Hands down, this is one of the most rich and valuable ecosystems left in North America,” Campbell said. “Our big action item is teaching people how to respect it and what we can do to make sure it stays as pristine as it currently is.”

This year, the festival will run November 6 – 11th. A schedule of events can be found here.

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