The 2011 annual bald eagle count dawned silver and gold last Sunday - a rare and perfect blue-sky winter day that was more than appropriate for the event's 25 th anniversary. Though weather conditions were ideal for counting the birds, by three o'clock it was clear that overall numbers were low, continuing a four-year trend that concerns count organizer and Brackendale Art Gallery owner Thor Froslev.
"We only had 627 eagles," he said.
"For the last four years it's been under 1,000. People keep saying there is lots of salmon - and there was a lot of Sockeye salmon in the Fraser River system - but the Chum salmon is dwindling up and down the coast."
The Squamish River Valley is one of the most important wintering habitats for North America's bald eagle populations. Throughout the winter months, the trees and sky above the river are ripe with the snowy-headed birds of prey, making the region a popular attraction for tourists and locals alike. On Monday, Jan. 3 Squamish residents Brent Loken and Sheryl Gruber walked the riverbanks with friends, hoping to spot more than a handful of eagles. They were disappointed with the turn out.
"We love it when the eagles come through, it's just incredible," said Loken.
"There is really no place like it. It looks like the numbers are down this year. Five or six years ago we were walking down here and there were fifty, sixty, seventy eagles in those trees."
The eagles that flock to the region are attracted to the abundance of salmon in the Squamish, Mamquam and Cheakamus rivers, but will move on if their food supply is inconsistent. They typically arrive to feed on Chum salmon in November and move on to Coho later in the season. This year, however, only 10 per cent of Chum returns were realized and Coho numbers were unusually early and high. North Vancouver Outdoor School (NVOS) Principal Victor Elderton said this phenomenon could skew the count results, but doesn't necessarily mean fewer eagles exist.
"Of the 100 (eagles) we saw, a good 10 per cent were first year birds, which is a good indication that because there isn't a lot of Chum salmon around, the older birds have moved out," said Elderton. "I've heard the numbers have been quite good on the Harrison (river), for example, so I'm sure that this whole area in the corner of B.C. is a feeding zone."
Another consideration for low eagle count numbers has to do with the way various salmon species spawn. Chum prefer the faster moving currents of the main rivers, which are visible to the naked eye from a number of vantage points used by eagle counters. Coho prefer quiet river tributaries, dispersing predatory eagle populations throughout the forests surrounding the waterways.
"Birds in the backwater are way harder to count than birds on the exposed sections of the river, especially the younger ones," continued Elderton. "This year the thing that was different was that there were significant numbers of birds in the backwater areas where typically you'd find Coho spawning."
Higher-than-normal numbers of eagles were spotted on the Cheakamus in mid-November and early December, but Elderton said the ratio of juvenile bald eagles to adults is more important than overall count numbers. For a healthy balance the dark young eagles, which don't yet sport the species' trademark white heads, should make up one third of the entire population. Due to their camouflaged plumage, they can be difficult to spot in wooded areas.
Data collected during the eagle count is filed with British Columbia's Ministry of Environment, which, along with the DFO, was unavailable for comment by press time.