Leaves are off the trees. The air is colder. Snow covers the mountain peeks. Salmon run the Squamish rivers to their spawning grounds. Bald eagles are beckoned by a salmon buffet. And the Squamish Environmental Conservation Society's (SECS) Eagle Watch volunteer interpretive program is about to take flight for its 11th season in Brackendale.
Delores Cates, the Eagle Watch co-ordinator and Michel Bertrand, site co-ordinator, recently welcomed new and returning volunteers with an orientation and information session. Meg Fellowes, president of SECS, told of how, after the world record eagle count in 1994 of 3,769 bald eagles, many locals felt there was a need to take steps to insure a safe and lasting habitat for these eagles. The Nature Conservancy of Canada was contacted and stepped up with several strategic moves to achieve this goal. One was the building of a viewing and interpretive area on the Squamish river dike opposite the Easter Seal Camp on Government Road. At the same time, SECS established the Eagle Watch program. Its purpose was (and is) to offer a front line view of bald eagles in a manner that was safe for eagles and educational for people.
As Fellowes explains the program, "We meet people, talk to them about habitat, about the salmon and the eagles and why the birds are here... about hazards to the birds... what they can do personally... habitat trees – eagle trees... it's also good for tourism. A lot of people come and want to get close to the birds through the binoculars and the spotting scopes and to learn a little bit about the world they live in."
Further, a goal is to promote responsible "eagle viewing etiquette." Eagles are wild creatures and need their space. Keep your distance – use binoculars or spotting scopes. Don't disturb them, especially in the early morning hours when they are feeding. Stay off the river banks. Keep dogs on a leash. Respect private property. Visit the "eagle dike'' to learn more.
This viewing experience is often quite profound as Nikki Kozakiewicz, a past Eagle Watch Co-ordinator relates: "I think until you’ve seen one (eagle) close up, especially through the spotting scopes and binoculars, you really have no concept of how awesome eagles are with their big wings, big beaks and talons. To see something in the flesh is much stronger than any removed media such as TV or pictures. This one woman came and looked through the scope and tears started streaming down her cheeks."
The Eagle Watch program runs on Saturdays and Sundays from late November until the end of January or early February. Throughout the Christmas and New Year's holidays volunteers are on shift daily. The shifts run from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. In past seasons as many as 7,000 people have visited the "eagle dike." On good days they can see 80 or more mature eagles roosting in the black cottonwood trees on the opposite bank of the river.
Eagle Watch is funded by donations from visitors on the dike and by contributions from sponsors. This year the program has benefited from support from the District of Squamish and VanCity Credit Union, which has been a regular supporter throughout the years and this year increased its contribution.
With this support Fellowes indicates an exciting new direction is being struck. "We'll also be able to get into the schools and start talking about eagles and habitat issues and the connectivity of life... it's not just the science, there's also the poetry and myth and the connections with aboriginal people. There's just so many stories that the eagle leads into. There's a wealth of information that's extremely interesting and it's right here in our own back yard... we're looking at finding out who is interested in terms of the teachers and what kind of resources already exist. If they can get in touch with us that would be wonderful, even if we can't meet those needs this year, just to get a sense of 'this is what we're doing' and 'this is where we want to go' and perhaps next year we can have prepared material and be a lot more tightly wrapped in terms of being able to provide them with resources that would be wonderful teaching aids."
Eagle Watch is now a decade old and clearly stretching its wings both to greet and educate visitors and to connect with young school children about the magic of the eagle. As Cates says, "Every day that I see an eagle is a special day. I like seeing people's awestruck reaction. When they (eagles) matter to people, their understanding of the eagles grows."