Bald Eagle Bonanza along the Fraser & Harrison Rivers.
The world's largest concentration of raptors is happening early!
Yesterday we did our earliest seasonal tour and eagle survey from Mission, BC eastward up the Fraser River to Kilby at the mouth of the Harrison, and then northward up the Harrison, past Harrison Bay, under the Highway #7 bridge and around the alluvial fan of the Chehalis River as it dumps gravel and salmon carcasses into the great shallows -- the feast for 1000 plus eagles.
The day was forecast rain but not a drop of rain fell. The 11AM -departure from Mission with Rob and Jo-Anne aboard their fine Fraser River Safari Tours boat was fully booked. The eastward 35 miles up the Fraser was spectacular. Just over half the 15 eagle nests easily seen were being defended by adults -- the unguarded sites probably had their territory holders off to the adjacent salmon rivers to socialize and feast on the easy dinners.
In total I counted 352 eagles along the Fraser. We had fine close encounters with many on the overhanging branches and a fine look at half a dozen harbour seals drying out on a logboom. This is the most bald eagles I had even seen along this section of the Fraser and I was worrying that perhaps the great spawning beds of the Chehalis had seen few spawning salmon or that a heavy rain-driven freshet had washed the carcasses off the shallow alluvial fan and down stream into the main Fraser River. Were the low numbers of returning local springs, chum and coho salmon along the Harrison tributaries going to mean little food for the wintering eagles?
Already we have had a couple of biologists staying with us who had travelled from Prince Rupert down the coast to Bella Bella region, and they had reported very low spawning salmon counts all along that coastal section. In short this was in my mind when we already had record numbers of eagles on the Chehalis -- Harrison complex by early November. With few fish to eat up north, and in spite of the region not yet being frozen up by the winter blasts, we had never seen the eagles arrive so early on the Chehalis. The biologists reports of the 'poor salmon returns' to these mid-BC rivers was likely the explanation.
But, equally disappointing, were the reports by the Fisheries Biologists at the Chehalis Hatcfhery. They were seeing a lower number of spring and chum salmon in their river -- not likely, by the early projections, to even supply enough eggs for the hatchery. This report was so different from the earlier reports of huge sockeye salmon returns to the Adams River another 700 miles upstream. The coastal runs of sockeye were not spectacular. Now the biologists were seeing less than normal returns on spring, chum and coho. Where was the breeding stock? Where was the winter food for our 10,000 bald eagles that frequent the south Fraser system?
I was worried our early eagle arrival would be short lasting as the carcasses got eaten up or washed into deep water for the waiting sturgeons. The first part of the Mission to Kilby journey was suggesting the Chehalis might be flushed out and that the eagles were dispersing downstream as they do every year when the carcasses of the Chehalis run out. But at least our tour was seeing lots of eagles along the Fraser -- they were getting a spectacular outing.
We left the dirty waters of the Fraser and entered the clean waters of the Harrison and planned the ''potty and tea break" at Kilby. Few eagles were apparent in the adjacent Harrison Bay -- I recorded 28 eagles + 162 trumpeter swans.
Back in the jet boat, under the Harrision River bridge and whooooo -- before us eagles and more eagles. This was now early afternoon and the region was loaded with sports fisherman walking the river banks, anchored everywhere pulling in sturgeons and salmon -- all a negative for me as I know these human activities along the gravel bars drive the eagles away. BUT, eagles and fisherman and dead carcasses and live spawning salmon abounded everywhere.
I started the count and quickly came up with 1145 eagles, about evenly spread between the gravel bars and adjacent trees. This was my largest count this early in the year. Obviously the fish carcasses were in abundance and the "still spawning fish" were evidence of more carcasses to come to keep the eagles well fed through December and hopefully into January.
What a spectacular sight. There were even 3 juveniles sitting on our tower, erected last year to place the live cams on. Unfortunately we did not have enough dollars this season to fund the new cams for this site -- what a shame as 300 eagles were within 500 feet of the tower.
The marvellous tour of the river allows one to see eagles being eagles. Everywhere eagles are arguing, hassling over a carcass or calling out defiantly that they own a site. These great spawning grounds are where eagles learn to be eagles. I could see people gathered at our Festival Eagle Point Observatory on the west shore, with eagles in the trees above them and hundreds on the flats in front of them.
This coming weekend, the 15th Annual Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival will offer record numbers of eagles. If I remember correctly we had just over 800 on the flats last year -- I suspect this coming weekend count will be over 2000.
So if you are in our Fraser Valley regions please come and take in our Bald Eagle Festival November 20th -- 21st -- not only will you see a lot of eagles but we have many sites explaining the natural history wonders of the Fraser valley, there are many lectures on local wildlife (include one each day by me on - yes -- eagles!)
Normally by December the Chehalis Flats is the world's largest concentration of a predator species -- this year it is happening early -- come and witness this incredible event.
See the Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival Site for a map and schedule.
By the way the Fraser River Safari Tours operates short boat runs up into the Harrison -- Chehalis flats during the Festival weekend from Kilby, one of the Festival activity sites, and does periodic additional tours (often with me as a guide) on the weekends following the Festival from Mission up the Fraser into the Harrison. These are world-class birding and photography tours.