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Arctic out flows don’t dissuade eagle counters

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Fall flood, snow cover reduce number of salmon for birds to feast on

At 8 a.m. on the day of Brackendale’s 18 th annual eagle count the sun had not been shining long so it only took 10 minutes for the Arctic winds to freeze my camera.

A short time later, as we climbed down onto the Cheakamus river, ice crystals grew over the lens’ of the binoculars I had been using to help geologist Karl Ricker, Dr. Ken MacKenzie and Teal McBean count Brackendale’s magnificent bald eagles.

Eagle count co-ordinator, Thor Froslev, had warned that it was necessary to dress "warm" and be prepared for a walk through some rough terrain, but the cold seemed to be infecting everything.

Then an eagle would fly past, unperturbed by the cold and, in many ways, happy to use the thermals to glide around in circles – and suddenly it became a lot easier to move around.

The smell of the dead salmon, which is what the eagles come to this part of B.C. to feed on, often hastened our walk along the riverbank but the odour was also strangely comforting, because it meant we were in the right place to see eagles.

Ricker was our lead counter but he relied on his long-time friend, MacKenzie, to note down what kinds of birds we were seeing and how many.

As we traipsed over icy rocks and around trees, Ricker explained that this year, the cold would drive many eagles deep into the cottonwood forests.

This is one of the reasons it took about 20 minutes for us to see a tree that sat more than two eagles.

For a bird that weighs up to 12 pounds, and with a wing span of six feet, they can sit on a branch as if they’re sitting on a cloud and they can move between trees in almost total silence.

As more flocks of birds were spotted, the excitement in our group grew and it was not long before Ricker was calling MacKenzie, "professor" as he gleefully announced another sighting.

With such well educated men leading the way it was hard not to feel like an extra in an Arthur Conan Doyle novel, especially when we hit bush because both Ricker and MacKenzie, who are both in their 60s, moved through the frozen undergrowth like picas.

The four of us covered an area spanning only three kilometres but it took us three and half-hours to complete that distance.

Most of the terrain we had been asked to negotiate was flat but there was no track through some of it and finding a stable foothold on snow covered undergrowth was a battle fought one step at a time.

Expectations were high this year for a bumper eagle count after a huge run of pink salmon swam up the Cheakamus River to spawn late last year.

But October’s deadly floods made enormous changes to the river’s terrain and wiped out many salmon in the process.

More than 350,000 salmon use the rivers around Squamish to spawn and die, but the carcasses of many of those who were left after the flooding, or arrived afterwards, have been covered by recent snowfalls so the Eagles did not have much of a reason to be out en masse on Jan. 4.

Despite the forces working against approximately 60 eagles counters last Sunday, 1,709 bald eagles were recorded – which is 132 more than last year.

The best ever Brackendale eagle count occurred in 1994 when 3,769 eagles were recorded.

This remains the largest recorded gathering of bald eagles in the world and is the reason Brackendale is known internationally as a pristine location for bird watching.

Our group was allotted the area from the Cheekye Bridge at Sunwolf to Baynes Island at the junction of the Cheakamus and Squamish Rivers.

By the end of our count, MacKenzie had noted 329 bald eagles; 202 of which were juveniles and 124 were adults (we also spotted one proud ruffed grouse, five ravens and three "unknowns").

Without detailed scientific analysis it’s impossible to tell why our group saw more juveniles eagles, but the general consensus at the Brackendale Art Gallery (which is where all the results are tallied) is that the adults are smarter and tend to stay out of sight when the conditions are unfavourable.

"It’s unusual to see so many juveniles but it’s also a good thing because it’s an indication of how healthy their reproduction is," Ricker said.

Both Ricker and MacKenzie spoke about how fickle the count can be sometimes, regardless of the conditions.

"On the 20 th of December, in the same spot (along the Cheakamus River) we saw 1,106 eagles and it was raining all day very hard," Ricker said.

"That wind I’m sure has pushed a lot of eagles back into the forest. We call it a polar out flow wind, which brings the air straight from the Arctic and forces it into the valleys around here.

"We had a really good salmon run this year but most of them have been covered with snow, which is also a big problem."

Despite the snow and cold Al Price, Mike Shaw and Steve Britten saw more eagles than they did last year.

While all three men were motivated by their results the talking point back at the gallery was the massive changes the floods had caused to the river system.

"We saw a huge gravel bar had been moved down the river about a quarter mile… and at some point with the next flood I’m sure there’ll be a lot of material that could, potentially, completely block some of the narrow inlets," Price said.

While the opportunity to see one of nature’s most graceful creatures, is the reason why so many people venture to Brackendale on Jan. 4, it’s not the only reason.

Many families and friends come to take in what is a wonderful community event.

"It’s nice to get outdoors; that’s always a lot of fun and it’s a great atmosphere back at the gallery," Ricker said.

"Then there’s always the excitement that it could be a another record year."

The Brackendale Eagle Festival continues throughout January and this Saturday, Jan. 10, one of Canada’s most distinguished wildlife artists, Robert Bateman, hosts an exhibition of his works.

It is $15 entry fee for Bateman’s exhibition but all proceeds go towards Brackendale’s Eagle Tower monument.

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