Organizers at the Squamish Environmental Society are busily preparing for this weekend's annual Brackendale Eagle Count.
The event is used in coordination with other counts in the Pacific Northwest to get a sense of how eagle populations are doing, said the society's chair, Carl Halvorson.
Last year, volunteers — who scour Brackendale Eagles Provincial Park and the Squamish River — recorded just 411 eagles. This was the lowest count in the history of the event.
At the time Glenne Campbell, the count organizer, blamed the weather: A strong rainfall in the late fall had swept the area, "so any salmon carcasses that were left on the river banks were either washed out or washed into back eddies and channels," she told Pique.
This year's count may face similar challenges associated with weather.
According to Halvorson, recent dumps of snow have impacted the eagles. Still, he doesn't expect it to be an especially low count.
"There's no reason to be super pessimistic — but we're not expecting a record."
In 1994, a whopping 3,769 eagles were counted.
It is a critical time for young eagles with mortality rates often reaching 50 per cent during the first year of life. With the season's poor chum salmon run and recent high water events, which swept away many of the dead fish, the eagles will likely now be moving into protected side channels and small streams to find their food.
Searching out the birds for the count relies on a mix of experienced and newbie volunteers. A call out for additional volunteers at the end of December brought out a number of new hands for the count.
"As soon as people knew we needed people, people stepped up," said Halvorson.
With around 60 volunteers in total, Halvorson stressed the importance of also having returning veterans with birding experience to help make sure the count is consistent from year to year.
"People get to be better birders. They know where and when to look," he explained.
In order to pass on knowledge, the society pairs up the veterans with "eagle tourists" — or newbies.
This helps create better data, explained Halvorson. "We don't want the human factor to be the reason the numbers change every year."
The Eagle Count is one part of the Brackendale Winter Eagle Festival, which finds its home at the Brackendale Art Gallery. As part of the festival there will be an "eagle art show," featuring images by Roy Hamaguchi and Norman Rich.
Then on Jan. 14, renowned anthropologist and National Geographic explorer-in-residence Wade Davis will deliver a keynote address, and on Jan. 21, the gallery will show the film, Trial of an Iconic Species, a behind-the-scenes look at the Cohen Commission into declining sockeye salmon stocks in the Fraser River. Scott Reynard was the director, writer, producer and director of photography for the film.
The eagle count will take place on Sunday, Jan. 7.