The winter tenants of Brackendale Eagles Provincial Park are back for their usual winter visit and that means tourists keen to see eagles are also flocking to the Eagle Run area of Squamish.
Chrissy McIntyre, the new Eagle Watch Program volunteer coordinator, has traded bears in Castlegar for eagles in Squamish. The former Bear Aware coordinator in Castlegar is now living in Squamish breathing new life into the 18th season of Eagle Watch.
McIntyre ensures that every weekend Eagle Watch volunteers have telescopes set up, and visitors get information on the eagles perched in trees across the Squamish River from trained volunteers. The group of volunteers came together for a training session last month. The trained bird watchers station themselves on the Squamish River dike on Saturdays and Sundays between 9:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. each day until the end of January when the eagle numbers dwindle.
For some of the program volunteers this is their 18th year of volunteering.
"We're trying to make it new and exciting for them," said McIntyre.
One initiative created to that end was an eagle photo contest. The winning image is to be used to promote the eagle-viewing opportunities in Squamish.
McIntyre said the volunteers help visitors better understand the eagles that feed on spawning salmon in the various waterways between the top of Howe Sound and the upper shores of tributaries of the Squamish and Mamquam rivers.
"This year we have 68 active volunteers," said McIntyre.
Along with sharing their eagle knowledge with visitors, the volunteers encourage people to view eagles across the river through telescopes owned by Eagle Watch and count the number of eagles and people visiting the area.
On the first day of the season more than 30 eagle viewers came out to see the eagles perched on the west side of the Squamish River, despite the fact that it poured rain on the first day of the current eagle-viewing season.
The volunteers are trained to tell eagle viewers the basics of ensuring the human gawkers on the dike don't turn the outdoor zoo into a chaotic place for the eagles.
"One of our education mandates is ethical viewing," McIntyre said.
Viewers are discouraged from going down onto the river sandbars for a closer look at the birds as they feed. Visitors are also encouraged to resist the urge to find a boat or canoe and paddle over to the protected area known as Brackendale Eagles Park on the west side of the Squamish River in the Brackendale area.
The Eagle Watch program is self-funded through donations. McIntyre created a new revenue source this year — eagle postcards are going to be available for purchase at the site by donation.
Larry Murray, the Squamish Estuary Society member who oversees the Eagle Watch program, said the program has a few key sponsors. Olivon provides the program with telescopes and maintenance services while Tourism Squamish, the Chamber of Commerce and the District of Squamish provide the program with marketing support. After the Eagle Watch volunteers share information about ethical eagle viewing, they often help visitors choose a place to eat or stay, so they are also community ambassadors who play a key role supporting tourism in Squamish.
"It costs about $5,000 to run this program," said Murray.
The money is spent on managing the volunteers and ensuring a team is on the dike each weekend. The program managers are paid small amounts for their work and there's a budget for keeping the spotting scopes maintained.
Murray said the biggest Eagle Watch Program need is an upgrade to the pit toilet at Eagle Run.
"We'd like to see a modern toilet facility that is more in line with the tourism adventure that we're providing here in Squamish," said Murray.
"You have a world-class event going here and you've got a third-world toilet."
The District of Squamish owns and maintains the toilet and it is slated for eventual replacement.
"I thought this summer it was going to be done, and it was on the books, but it didn't happen," said Murray.
The Executive Inn and Suites is supporting the program by offering eagle-viewing packages. Each package purchase results in a $5 contribution to Eagle Watch. Sunwolf is offering eagle float packages with guides who received the Eagle Watch training. A new package this year includes two adult float trips for $100 each with a child able to join the trip at no cost.
More information on the annual migration of eagles to Squamish can be found at www.SquamishEnvironment.ca/EagleWatch.