Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Eagle Dimension

                My heart leapt when we stepped out on the viewing platform and I heard multiple eagle calls filling the open valley. Before me, dozens of bald eagles were standing on the mudflats, some perched on rocks in the river, their dark yellow feet visible above the river; some standing in shallow water up to their feathers, some on the gravel edges of the mudflats. On the far side of the river, the field seemed to be scattered with dark rocks.  Peering through binoculars, I saw the rocks were actually more bald eagles, resting on stumps or logs.  They also occupied the branches of leafless trees along the river banks, where the giant birds posed quietly, seemingly biding their time, as if they were extras waiting to act in a movie.  Now I estimated a hundred eagles, just from where we stood.  By the end of the day, we saw more than we could count.
                Occasionally an eagle would rise up from a tree, spread its wings and fly along the river through the valley, then settle down to a new, still serious, stance. The lush, golden lowland valley is bounded by dark green forested mountains to the east and to the west. Not far downstream from our perch, the Harrison River flows into the Fraser River. This is the conduit for the salmon returning from the ocean to this place to spawn, and die.
                During other seasons, the eagles that I see around lakes or at the coast are so far away, soaring high above or perched at the top of the tallest tree.  Even at a distance, they are easy to identify because of their size and their white head and tail feathers. Having lived much of my life in a part of Kentucky where turkey vultures were the biggest raptors around, I am eager to see bald eagles, in part because their numbers have rebounded after facing the threat of extinction. I stop to look whenever I see one, or whenever I hear one.  Now living in Washington, I heard that I could witness a gathering of hundreds of bald eagles in early winter. Bald eagles migrate from all around to feast on dead salmon.  A particularly large gathering is on the mudflats at the confluence of the Chehalis and Harrison Rivers in British Columbia, less than 60 miles north of where we live. There, these carrion eaters scavenge the carcasses of salmon which have “expired” (as the scientists say) after spawning.
At first, seeing so many eagles on the ground was like seeing a flock of oversized, white headed, well-dressed turkeys.  Yet the resemblance ends there. The eagles exude casual dominance as they stood very deliberately facing upstream. They never ceased their visual surveillance, turning their necks every few seconds to assess the activity in all directions with their keen stare.  Yet at the same time, they seemed unconcerned by us, the humans peering back at them from the sidelines, where we were restrained by the simple rope or by the signs warning us to stay off the mudflats. Meanwhile, gulls wandered around them, picking at scraps.  The wriggling salmon fins cut the surface of the turbulent water nearby, as the salmon went about laying roe for the next generation before they died.
An eagle on the edge of the water about 30 feet from me was standing with a dead salmon gripped in its talons. Every few minutes it would bend its neck to tear off a chunk of the carefully guarded carcass.  The eagles near it were nonchalant. Have they already been sated? Were they digesting while they hung out before plucking their next meal out of the water?
Occasionally an eagle would open its massive hooked beak and stretch out its neck to let loose a loud assertive call: a musical warble of short descending notes that carried across the valley. The effect of having so many eagles gathered was to hear an ongoing chorus of captivating eagle calls coming from all directions.  I felt like I had stepped into a new dimension, the eagle dimension. I felt honored to be there.

Postscript: To get to this special place, Lynne and I headed north from Bellingham and crossed into British Columbia, following the two lane highways to a neighborhood near the eagle preserve, and then taking a short walk down a path to the edge of the mudflats.  Humans have a contradictory relationship with the eagles.  Local authorities have drawn boundaries around these mud flats to create Chehalis Flats Bald Eagle and Salmon Preserve (for the wildlife) and Eagle Point Park (for the humans), and have made a good effort to educate the public on respectful ways to see the eagles without tramping on the mudflats and tearing up the spawning habitat.  At the same time, a subdivision called Eagle Point Estates is being built right up to the edge of the preserve, a process which involves knocking down trees that stand in the way of the new upscale homes. I hope that the human intrusion will not keep the keen eyed impassive eagles from returning here each winter, allowing us future up close visits to the eagle dimension.  Here is a link to a discussion of this very issue:
If you want to see the eagles, here is a link to a map with suggested viewing sites:


  1. Elizabeth Jane PryceDecember 10, 2015 at 9:59 AM

    So lovely to see some of your writing again. what a lovely experience

  2. Just amazing! I love your blog. Thanks for sharing your experiences.