Photography by Louise Christie
Look up. Look way up. If your eyesight is as good as a great blue heron's, you'll be able to spot black specks soaring above the Lower Mainland. Even if your vision is less discerning, get ready to welcome back bald eagles that are migrating south from summer feeding grounds in Alaska and B.C.'s central coast.
On the phone from the Hancock Wildlife Foundation in Surrey, David Hancock could barely contain his excitement. The honorary director of the annual Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival expressed amazement to Pique at what he'd witnessed during last year's bird count in the Harrison River estuary.
"Last fall was devastating for chum salmon on the Central Coast," he said, "and that totally shifted the pattern of eagles. Each day they arrived on the Harrison River by the hundreds. I was able to stand in one place and count 7,362, the largest concentration of raptorial birds in the world. The downside was that they were desperately looking to find food. The Chehalis River had a normal size run of coho. The eagles cleaned them out in three weeks. After they dispersed to places as far south as the Central Plains the count dropped to 370."
When Hancock first began photographing and writing about eagles in the early 1960s, the newly graduated UBC student could only find three nesting pairs of adults. Today he estimates there are over 360. What brought the increase?
"When I started to survey along the Fraser River in my light plane, it was only 10 years after Alaska had dropped their bounty on eagles. Because of pressure from fishermen, the state used to pay hunters a couple of bucks to destroy their national symbol. As a consequence, they eliminated most of the nesting birds."
What a difference a few decades makes. Hancock now proudly points out that during November, the Fraser Valley witnesses the largest concentration of eagles anywhere on the planet.
"I've travelled much of the globe and seen mammal predators migrate in large numbers, but there's nothing that compares with this among raptors. This is a class event in the world of wildlife, especially as it all takes place within a one-square-mile radius. And it's not just eagles. There are lots of swans, ducks, and geese. We just spotted a white heron."
Now in its 16th year, the festival takes place at a dozen locations between Mission and Harrison Hot Springs; four main eagle-spotting sites are centered on the Harrison and Chehalis river estuaries in the vicinity of the hamlet of Harrison Mills. That's where Rob and Jo-Anne Chadwick, operators of Fraser River Safari's jet boat eco river tours, take groups on the Harrison River during the festival. Jo-Anne is also the festival coordinator.