When the bald eagles are away, the other birds will play.
But when the big boys are back in town, the whole food chain and ecosystem changes, Rob Butler said. Ducks flock together for protection, and sea birds venture inland.
“[The birds] behave differently. It has huge effects,” said the director of The Nature Trust of British Columbia.
For 40 years, Butler has examined the sea eagle’s role as a predator. In the 1960s and ’70s he feared the task would disappear as the iconic North American bird of prey’s numbers fell. The eagle was on the brink of extirpation from the continental United States.
But the bald eagle’s population has soared back. In 1995, the bird was removed from the U.S. federal government’s endangered species list.
“They’re a conservation success story,” Butler said. “The eagles were in pretty thin numbers.”
Thanks to The Nature Trust, Squamish is one of the best places in the world to watch the eagles up close. In 2008, the organization acquired 5.6 hectares of critical estuary in Squamish to protect some of the wilderness the eagles visit.
Squamish hosts one of North America’s largest annual congregations of wintering bald eagles. Every year between November and January, the feathered creatures return to the Squamish River watershed to feast on the spawning salmon. In 1994, the community boasted a world-record count for bald eagles with 3,769 eagles spotted on local rivers’ shores.
Butler’s respect for the creature has grown along with his research. By summer, most of the eagles visiting Squamish will disappear up the coast to Alaska.
Officials were astounded when they first placed transmitters on the eagles, Butler said. They tracked one bald eagle’s journey from the mouth of Skagit River in Washington State to the Northwest Territories.
“Eagles have no problem travelling huge distances,” Butler said.
Every Saturday and Sunday until the end of January, volunteers will be at the Brackendale Eagle Run viewing shelter to answer bald eagle questions. They’ll teach people about basic eagle biology and behaviour. The volunteers also help people view the creatures through spotting scopes, while compiling statistics on the animals.
“It’s a phenomenal phenomena,” Butler said of the wintering eagles.
The 28th Brackendale Eagle Count takes place on Sunday (Jan. 5). Participants are to meet at the Brackendale Art Gallery at 9 a.m. and set out from there.
For more information visit brackendalegallery.com.