Marcela Farpali at an Eagle Watching Station last year.

Bald Eagles return to winter habitat

Every winter migrating Bald Eagles descend upon the Skagit River to feed on spawning chum salmon, while volunteers help the public learn about them.

“Volunteers are outfitted with binoculars and have spotting scopes trained on the eagles, so visitors are able to get an up-close look at these amazing birds,” said Tanya Kitterman, Forest Service Eagle Watchers program coordinator. “When you can make out every feather and see them looking back at you, it is exhilarating,” she said.

In a typical winter, 3,500 rafters, 1,000 anglers, and more than 10,000 people visit to view eagles, said Kitterman. Approximately 50-60 individuals volunteer each year, many of them former teachers. They tell visitors how a Bald Eagle’s eyesight is five to six times sharper than a human’s, it develops the white head at age 5, and is one of the largest birds of prey in the world, with an average seven-foot wingspan.

Many of the volunteers will return for their 17th year this winter. Kitterman said they come back because they relish helping people see the beauty of the eagle. “One of our volunteers told me that it is always a moment of wonder when someone gets to see an eagle the first time,” she said.

The Eagle Watchers are available at the three viewing locations along the North Cascades Highway 20, each with off-highway parking: near mile post 98 at the Howard Miller Steelhead Park in Rockport; mile post 100 rest area; and, at the Marblemount Fish Hatchery. Viewing stations open weekends Dec. 26 through Jan. 31, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

The Skagit River system has one of the largest wintering populations of bald eagles in the lower 48 states, one of the values for which the river was designated under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. In response to increased visitor use on the Skagit River, the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and North Cascades Institute started the Eagle Watchers program in 1994. Since then, volunteers have made over 125,000 visitor contacts and contributed nearly 11,000 volunteer hours.

For more information contact Tanya Kitterman at 360-854-2617.

Learn more about Skagit River wildlife at http://www.fs.fed.us/r6/mbs/skagit-wsr/overview/wildilfe.shtml.

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