Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Valley of Eagles

As a photographer bald eagles are one of those subjects that always stop me in my tracks. Regardless of what I’m shooting if a bald eagle shows up, it gets my attention. Throughout our winter months it’s not uncommon to see the silhouette of an eagle perched high in the barren branches of a cottonwood tree or flying around town. We’re fortunate to have several locations in our area where eagles concentrate prior to nesting in spring. Fossil Creek, Windsor Reservoir, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal and Lake McConaughy in Nebraska are popular destinations. I’ve also had good success finding eagles along the North Platte River in Wyoming. Unfortunately, quality wildlife viewing doesn’t always translate to quality wildlife photography. As the elk rut wound down this fall I was still antsy to sit behind my camera. For years I’ve been reading about a large concentration of eagles that show up north of Haines Alaska in the late fall and early winter each year. So I left the warm weather behind and headed to the Valley of Eagles.

Situated on the upper end of North America’s longest and deepest fjord, the Inside Passage, Haines is located in the southeast part of the Alaska, 80 miles north and just a little over an hour flying time north of Juneau. Travel to Haines was surprisingly easy. I was able to fly end to end from Denver in the same day.

The state of Alaska established a small 5000 acre preserve in 1973 to protect the habitat of concentrating winter bald eagles. Years of additions have brought the preserve to 48,000 acres (about a quarter the size of Rocky Mountain National Park) and the protected habitat now spans 30 miles of the Chilkat River valley. The prime eagle viewing area is adjacent to a critical habitat section called the Eagle Council Grounds 19 miles north of Haines.

The Chilkat basin is a wide alluvial valley. The porous, sandy soil allows a natural uprising of warm water to percolate into the Chilkat River keeping it open and ice free well into winter. A late run of chum salmon is the final ingredient necessary to bring over 4000 eagles into the valley, most of which congregate on the couple mile stretch of the Eagle Council Grounds.

The first morning I left Haines anxious to see this spectacle first hand. Through the first ten miles I saw several eagles flying and perched along the river. However, nothing like I’d read about. I was beginning to wonder if I’d come to the area too early. Perhaps the mild fall that Alaska was experiencing had the birds spread out and the numbers just weren’t there yet. Those questions vanished as I passed mile marker 17. They were indeed here. Trees were laden with dozens of birds and river flats were lined with hundreds and hundreds of bald eagles. In some places eagles were visible across the flats as far as the low, dense cloud layer allowed you to see. I’ve witnessed a number of spectacular wildlife events, but this was simply unbelievable.

I took me a while to get into the rhythm of this event. The volume of birds and constant activity made it difficult to decide what and how to capture photographs. I didn’t want to travel this distance and return home with a bunch of perched profile shots. So I began to watch and concentrate on the activity along the river edges and flats. I learned there was indeed a pattern in their behavior. Bald eagles hunt for what they need to eat within the first two hours each day. However their social behavior often gets in the way of solo hunting and feeding. Eagles are opportunistic and they turn into marauders, pirating and stealing food from one another all day long. When an eagle captured a salmon it would fly or drag it to shore. Standing on its catch they would let out a high pitched series of challenge calls as if telling others stay away. Each bird would get a few minutes of uninterrupted feeding before the attacks began, and these attacks were brutal. While I didn’t see any birds injured it wasn’t uncommon to see an invader drop from the sky, talons extended, slamming into another to take away a meal. Females being larger in size often threw their entire body into an unsuspecting challenger. The opportunity to capture action photographs of bald eagles was endless.

Each year in mid-November the town of Haines hosts an Alaska Bald Eagle Festival. The five-day celebration has interpretive tours, seminars, art shows and other cultural events. Despite the relative remoteness of Haines I’ve heard this event has a very loyal following and the area gets very crowded. I traveled to the valley the week prior to the Festival. In the five days I was there I had the area to myself seeing only two other photographers the entire trip. If you’re a bald eagle enthusiast Haines Alaska and the Chilkat Eagle Preserve should be high on your list of destinations.

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