Where Eagles Fly in for Fish Dinners
THEY come in their thousands, beautifully dressed for dinner, flying in from all over Alaska, British Columbia, and as far away as the state of Washington. Very impressive birds, very distinguished with their white heads and showy white tail feathers fanned out for braking as they land. Dark brown bodies, weighing an average of 13 pounds [6 kg], females slightly larger than males, travel at 30 miles [50 km] an hour, with a wingspan of 6 to 8 feet [1.8 to 2.4 m]—but if their keen eyes spot a fish a mile away, they can dive down on it at 100 miles [160 km] an hour and pick it off!
For their dinner party at the Chilkat River, however, such spectacular aerial stunts are not needed. Their salmon entrées are not going anywhere. They are spread out before them in abundance, just waiting to be devoured. All these festivities are hosted for them by the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, created in 1982 by the state of Alaska “to protect and perpetuate the world’s largest concentration of Bald Eagles and their critical habitat.”
The preserve covers 48,000 acres [19,000 ha] of river-bottom land of the Chilkat, Klehini, and Tsirku rivers, and only areas important to eagle habitation are included. The special area where the thousands of eagles concentrate and the visitors flock to see them is five miles [8 km] along the Chilkat River bordering the Haines Highway, between Haines and Klukwan.
A government leaflet entitled “Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve” tells why this five-mile stretch of the river is able to serve spawned-out salmon delicacies to the eagles.
“The natural phenomena responsible for five miles of open water on the Chilkat River during freezing months is called an ‘alluvial fan reservoir.’ The Tsirku fan, which is a fan-shaped accumulation of gravel, rock, sand, and glacial debris, at the confluence of the Tsirku, Klehini, and Chilkat Rivers acts as a large water reservoir.”
Ordinarily, a river slowed down near its entry into another body of water deposits sediment, forming a delta, but no reservoir of water is left behind. At the point where the Tsirku River enters the Chilkat River, however, earth faults and glacial action resulted in a large basin being gouged out to depths greater than 750 feet [230 m] below sea level. When the glaciers retreated, debris was left behind, and rivers added sand and gravel deposits until finally the basin had loose, porous deposits over 750 feet [230 m] thick sitting on its bedrock.
The account shows that during the warmer spring, summer, and early fall seasons, water from snow and melted glacial ice flows into the alluvial fan. The fan receives water faster than it can flow out, creating a huge reservoir of water. The eagle preserve leaflet continues: “When winter arrives, cold weather sets in and surrounding waters freeze. However, water in this large reservoir remains from 10 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit [5° to 10° C.] above surrounding water temperatures. This warmer water ‘percolates’ into the Chilkat River and keeps it from freezing.
“Five species of salmon spawn in these and other nearby streams and tributaries. The salmon runs begin in the summer and continue on through late fall or early winter. The salmon die shortly after spawning and it is their carcasses which provide large quantities of food for the eagles.”
The salmon feasting starts in October and ends in February, and shortly thereafter the eagles by the thousands begin to scatter far out into the surrounding countryside. The preserve, however, is the year-round home of between 200 and 400 eagles. In addition to any fish they can catch, they supplement their diet with waterfowl, small mammals, and carrion.
Exciting Courtships, Lasting “Marriages”
They mate for life—can reach the age of 40—but usually remain together only during the nesting season. Courting behavior begins in April and “can involve spectacular courtship displays of diving eagles locking talons and somersaulting through the air,” according to the folder Eagles—The Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. All that and holding hands too? Sounds wildly romantic!
Ninety-four nests have been observed in the preserve. From one to three eggs usually hatch between late May and early June, after an incubation period of 34 or 35 days. The young leave the nest by September, but they must be content with mottled brown and white plumage. They won’t get their fancy white heads and tails until they are four or five years of age!
The folder also gives some background on the eagles’ struggle to survive and advice to visitors on how to enjoy the preserve safely:
“The Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve contains 48,000 acres [19,000 ha] set aside for the protection of the eagles. But eagles haven’t always been protected; they once were fair game for bounty hunters. Based on reports of the eagle’s tremendous appetite for live salmon and small animals, the Alaska Territorial Legislature in 1917 created a bounty on eagles. Veterans of Ft. William H. Seward in Haines tell stories of supplementing their meager Army pay with the $1 (later raised to $2) paid for each pair of talons.
“Later investigations found that the eagles’ harm to salmon runs had been exaggerated, and the bounty was removed in 1953. By that time, over 128,000 eagles had been shot for the bounty. The eagle population of Southeast Alaska during the 1940’s, when the bounty was still in effect, was estimated to be half that of the eagle population in the 1970’s.
“When Alaska became a state in 1959, the bald eagle in Alaska came under federal protection of the Bald Eagle Act of 1940. Killing an eagle is a federal offense, and possession of live or dead eagles or any parts (including feathers!), except under certain specific conditions, is also illegal.
“In 1972 the Alaska State Legislature established the Chilkat River Critical Habitat Area, managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, to ensure protection of the major eagle concentration. Extensive tracts of eagle habitat remained unprotected, and a long and often bitter battle raged between environmentalists and pro-development forces over land use issues in the Chilkat Valley. After intensive study by the National Audubon Society and the state-funded Haines/Klukwan Resource Study, loggers, fishermen, environmentalists, business people and local politicians finally reached a compromise. In 1982 the state legislature enacted that compromise into a law creating the 48,000 [19,000 ha] acre Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve.
“No logging or mining is allowed in the Preserve, but traditional uses of the land, such as berry picking, fishing and hunting, can continue. The Preserve is managed by the Alaska Division of Parks with the help of a 12-member advisory board made up of local residents, state officials, and a biologist.
“How to use the valley’s natural resources without damaging the environment is an on-going question, and land-use issues can still provoke controversy in the Chilkat Valley. But local residents are proud that a local solution was found for the protection of the eagles.”
The main area where visitors can view the eagles is along the Haines Highway, which parallels the Chilkat River, and there turnout areas have been provided for this purpose.
[Map on page 15]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
Chilkat River Chilkoot River
Klehini River KLUKWAN
Eagle Viewing Area
Tsirku River ▾ Chilkoot Lake
Chilkat Lake ▾
Chilkat River ▾ Lutak Inlet
Takhin River ▾
Mountain High Maps™ copyright © 1993 Digital Wisdom, Inc.
[Picture Credit Line on page 15]
Bald eagles on pages 15-18: Alaska Division of Tourism