Harrison -- Chehalis Wonderland & Conflict

Wildlife News
Chehalis -- Harrison Flats represent the largest Bald Eagle wintering grounds along the Canada -- US border. There will likely be 1500 to 2000 eagles there in December and January of this year.

On our count on Sunday Nov. 18, I counted one-by-one 1061 eagles on the flats and in the surrounding trees. Probably another 300 to 500 were down below sight on the river edge or sitting in trees out of sight. An absolutely incredible congregation. Thousands of predators and scavengers are always exciting and a statement that the life and death cycle is playing out its hand.

Then on Wednesday Nov 21, afternoon I returned
to the area to deal with a suspected clear cut of the nearby hillside. This hillside has historically been the major winter night roost for the area. On Wednesday we saw what I estimated to be well over 200 eagles arrive during the daylight waning hour. Still others were streaming in, only glimmering silhouettes showing against the fading sunset to the west. Then I did something I hadn't done in this area before. And I have to say I did this because of the full moon sparkling across the eastern sky. Karen, and I went back to Eagle Point, the location of our Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival main counting spot to see the Chehalis Flats in the dark. But it wasn't dark. The moon lite up the flats, the bright moonlight lite up the waterways and gravel bars, and with the binoculars we could see 100's of eagles still out on the flats squabbling for salmon carcasses. There were as many eagles out feeding in the moonlight as there had been in the bright sunlight. The action had never stopped. Perhaps another 1000 eagles were out there! The cacophony of sounds, the arguing, the territorial statements were all as pronounced as during the day, but unexpectedly coming out of the eerie moonlight night.

I have sat in blinds many times until after dark watching the eagles. Generally they would leave the feeding rivers and depart for their favored night rousts as the sun set. But not this night. Here on the Chehalis River the feasting was going to continue into the night. But for how long? The mind assembles patterns, draws conclusions, but so often the changing circumstances of nature results in different circumstances, different conclusions. This case in point. Over the years of observing the late evening activity period of predators hunting the various intertidal flats left me with the conclusion that eagles went to bed before peregrine falcons. Even in captivity eagles shut down their daily cycle and the peregrines were still intensely active. This enabled the peregrines to hunt the flats a bit later and "keep their last kill for themselves! With a little more brighter "earlier light" the eagles would come out and steals the falcons kill. But here were eagles out flying and landing on a dark hillside AND feeding on the salmon carcasses long after dark. Was this night time activity largely the result of the bright moonlite nite? Quite possibly.

Questions popped into my head. Was the competition during the day so great that it simply had to continue during the night so that everybody got a dinner? This was a year of high eagle abundance and possible higher than normal competition for carcasses. Was the high river water making fewer salmon carcasses available and it therefore took longer to feed the large number of eagles? Was food the driving force here or was it a socializing event? Was this 'moonlight activity' this usual or unusual? How had I missed this before? Possibly because we get more cloudy nights than moonlite nights! Lots of interesting questions to help us understand these facinating birds.

The swans and waterfowl were out there as well -- I can't wait to get our Pan-Tilt-Zoom PTZ cameras out on these flats to see what the day -- and the moonlite night reveals! This will be awesome. These great feasting rivers are also the great learning grounds for eagles. This is where eagles learn to be eagles. How and when to bully, bluff or give in. And it is just behind this spot on the Harrison River that we are wanting to place the underwater camera on the river bottom (we are now testing a camera and lights in a tank) to view the 10 to 16 foot sturgeons that are sucking up the salmon carcasses from the bottom! Truly we have one of the great resources of British Columbia on Vancouver's doorstep. By the way we are urgently looking for funds to further these projects!! Hint hint! More camera, more interactive interviews etc.

When I was at the Echo Lake roost site the hour earlier I had been surprised that over 90% of the arriving eagles were coming in from the west -- flying in over the mountain from the direction of Vancouver. The Chehalis Flats were 1 to 2 k to the east. Maybe this is why the eagles weren't coming in from the east -- in the east they were still sitting on the Chehalis River Flats -- feasting! Would another 1000 eagles be going to settle into the Echo Lake Night Roost even later this evening? This definitely needs further study.

I had kept wondering if the arriving birds had made a circuitous approach. Had they gone south down the Harrison River and then risen over the mountain to approach Echo Lake from the opposite side? Now maybe some suggested answers -- or more questions. Maybe the evening flight had come largely from somewhere else? If the Chehalis eagles were still sitting by the hundreds on the flats, how far away were all those western birds coming from? And from where?

Questions and more questions.
Not a lot of answers. Dr. David Bird and his / our student, will be arriving for a week of review of our south coast eagle study plans and here will be some more specific questions to look into. Already the study is to focus on eagle productivity and movements on my long-term Urban Bald Eagle Study Project. Perhaps these long-term traditional night roosts are not just made up of local birds. Perhaps some of these late arrivals were coming in from considerable distance off. Perhaps another reason for banding these birds -- to track them to their homeland and their daily and seasonal movements.

I had first seen this night roost back in the early 1980's when I regularly visited Father Raymond de Coccola, the priest who wrote my most favorite book: The Incredible Eskimo, about his life in the 30's and 40' living among the Eskimos of north central Canada. At that time he owned this Echo Lake property. This is the only book I have published that received more than a 1/2 page review in the New York Times Book review section. And it deserved it!

But back to night roosts and specifically the Echo Lake night roost. I had been asked to come to the lake when the new land owner had heard rumors that the hillside beside the lake -- the precise trees used by the night roosting eagles -- were slated for clear-cutting. How terrible. Eagle nesting trees are certainly important, particularly in urban areas where few large trees exist, but equally important are secure sheltered night roosts. These are areas where the eagles can find shelter from the winds and storms, places where they will not be bothered during the night, places where access and egress is easy and safe in the semi-darkness, places where for 14,000 years since the last ice age life has proven safe and secure.

So my point is that nesting and feeding areas are obviously imperatives for eagle survival. But so are safe and secure roosting areas, particularly from the winter storms. At least you can grow another tree in 200 years. But not a mountain. And most certainly you cannot quickly re-grow a mountain with a side-hill of aging forest giants with 14,000 years of traditional security. The Echo Lake night roost is likely the largest such roosting area in southern Canada.

In most places of North America the night roosts of eagles get equal protection to nesting sites because they are of equal importance. We must keep an eye on this great southern natural wonder -- the Chehalis -- Harrison Flats and the adjoining night roosts. I will keep you posted on this disturbing development.

Here is a Google Map showing the area, the local nests, our CAM sites, Eagle Point Observatory -- and the adjacent Echo Lake night roost. See the Media Gallery

david hancock

PS Hancock to give Chehalis -- Harrison River Bald Eagle Tour:
I will be giving guided tours of the bald eagles of the Chehalis -- Harrison Flats on Dec 9th with the Fraser River Safari fine people -- we will likely see 1000+ eagles in a few hours. Come join us: http://www.fraserriversafari.com/

Nowhere in NA with the possible exception of a raft triip in the Brackendale -- Squamish River System will you see so many eagles. For birders or naturalists wanting such an easy opportunity to view 100's of eagles -- well don't miss these areas. http://www.brackendaleartgallery.com/Festival.html

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