Organizers of the Brackendale Eagle Count are feeling optimistic after last year's count saw the lowest tally in its 30-year history.
On Jan. 8, volunteers will divide a 40-kilometre area of the Brackendale Eagles Provincial Park and the Squamish River, recording all of the eagles observed over the course of the day. Last year birdwatchers spotted only 411 eagles, down from 641 the year prior and a historic high of 3,769 in 1994. But with ideal weather conditions in the forecast and a strengthening salmon return, organizers expect a different story to emerge in 2017.
"Last year was challenging because we had all those storms. One of the things with climate change is you tend to have more volatile weather, so these big storms came in and blew out all these (salmon) carcasses — and there wasn't a big return to begin with — and that really affected the numbers," explained eagle count volunteer co-ordinator Vanessa Isnardy.
"One thing anecdotally I can see is we do have a lot more salmon, a lot more chum... Having a good salmon return, and being cold but not too cold that (eagles) can't access them is key to having eagles in the area."
Although eagle numbers have been on the decline in recent years, it hasn't tapered interest in the Squamish Eagle Watch Program (EWP). A volunteer-run initiative in its 21st year, the EWP educates guests on ethical eagle viewing and often serves as visitors' first welcome to Squamish and the Sea to Sky corridor.
"We get people from all over the world that come and visit us on the dyke, and it's a really great introduction to the community," explained program co-ordinator Pamela Duynstee.
"They have a lot to say about the area and act as ambassadors for the community as well."
But with many volunteers getting up there in age, Isnardy is looking to inject some new life into the program.
"We would love more volunteers. There's a lot of history in Squamish and a lot of people with knowledge of where we've come from environmentally, going back to the days when we had a coal port expansion," she said. "We've had lots and lots of passion and people interested in the environment who would volunteer, but we need some youth, some new people to connect with the old, learn the stories and help support initiatives going forward, so that we can maintain all these beautiful datasets."
Between Nov. 12 and Dec. 31, an average of 43 eagles were spotted a day on birdwatching tours of the Eagle Run Dyke and Interpretive Area in Brackendale. A total of 866 eagles were recorded during that time.
Isnardy said another threat to the local wintering bald eagle population is a lack of proper habitat.
"(Eagles) don't just need food, but they need proper sized trees and habitats to hang out in," she noted. "One of the biggest things with development, of course, is it's undervalued our snags, those old trees that don't have a lot of limbs at the top that are great perching sites for eagles.
"Recognizing not just the living trees but these old trees that are still standing is important."
The eagle count is part of the month-long Brackendale Winter Eagle Festival, the highlight of which is A Celebration of Eagles on Jan. 21 at the Brackendale Art Gallery, featuring live music, art displays by local artists, beer tastings, and activities for all ages. The gallery, which is currently listed for sale for $2.7 million, has served for years as an important homebase for the EWP, and Duynstee is hopeful it will continue to play that role under new ownership.
"It would be really great to keep a partnership with them," she said. "It depends on who buys it and takes it over, but if they can keep it as the same type of facility it would be great to keep that as a base."
For more details on the Brackendale Winter Eagle Festival, visit www.brackendaleartgallery.com.
There are also still spots available for volunteers to help out on the Jan. 8 eagle count. Email Isnardy at email@example.com for more information.