72nd Street Eagle-in, 2017

January 27, 2018 by Rokman61

Who can take note of, and not be impressed by this spectacular creature?

The ’72nd Street’ referred to in the title above is located in rural South Delta, BC.  The story presented here takes place there, with the eagles having the role of principle characters.


The Bald Eagle is a fairly common bird on the Pacific Northwest coast, and can be encountered almost anywhere in the Lower Mainland.  As I prepare this posting, the local Eagle population is rapidly building up, soon to be an epic wildlife happening of ‘National Geographic’ standard.  Local birders are often bemused when passers-by notice our binoculars and helpfully ask and/or announce, “Did you see the eagle?”.  I have the urge to respond with something like, “Only One?  We don’t normally pay attention if there are less than a few dozen of them”.  But I resist the temptation.  The fact is, the Baldies are super abundant here in season.  The Squamish and Harrison areas have long held ‘Eaglefests’, at which the birds can be observed scavenging on spawned-out salmon carcasses.  A wonderful event, but for shear concentration of eagles, our local ‘eaglefest’ provides even more and closer viewing opportunites.  I will elaborate.

On one dreary drizzly day last February (2017) I was sorting through a mass of seagulls, hoping to find a rarity (which just happens to be what birders do).  Bald Eagles are such common fare that normally they don’t get much attention from ‘veteran’ birders.  On this day they seemed to be particularly abundant, so I decided to do a rough count.  Using my telescope I made a single wide pass across the open fields before me.  I lost count at just under 400 individual birds!  Clearly, this was something worth noting!  How can such a concentration be explained?

The answer involves three aspects – timing, location, and the historical abundance of the species.  I’ll discuss these in reverse order.

Historical abundance

The Bald Eagle, an iconic bird familiar to most of us, is now a very common sighting in our region but has not always been so.  Back in the 1960s they were almost wiped out by widespread use of DDT (which causes thinning of the birds’ egg shells, resulting in an inability to reproduce).  Since the banning of DDT the population of eagles and other affected birds has rebounded, to the extent that Bald Eagles are now abundant and seem to still be increasing.  In recent winters there has been what can best be described as a ‘happening’ – a spectacular congregation of eagles like nothing seen here before.  I refer to it as our ‘Eagle-in’.

The ‘Eagle-in’ is neither an unusual or a cyclical event (compared to the Snowy Owl invasions that occur every 4-5 years), but something that has been gradually building over the years.  Here is a photo I took along the Boundary Bay Dike in 2011 – a harbinger of what was coming.

The epicentre of the action is a commercial turf-growing farm on the Fraser Delta a few kilometres from Boundary Bay.  Here is a typical view looking over the turf fields.  (Click on image for larger view).

In a nearby tree:

By 2014 they were getting increasingly numerous.  In early winter 2016 I tried doing a quick count of just the eagles visible from a single vantage point beside the turf fields.  Viewing through my telescope I tallied 138 individuals on one pass.  A similar count in early February of 2017 came up with 281 birds.
But, why are they concentrating around the turf farm?  That’s often the first question asked by people who just happen to come upon this happening.  Simple answer: there is abundant winter food available close by for the eagles.  That food is supplied through several sources which are located on and near the turf farm.
  • Associated with the turf-growing operations is a major facility for composting green waste, which attracts gulls, starlings, and blackbirds as well as the eagles.
  • A few kilometres to the north is the Vancouver Landfill (aka ‘the dump’), which offers similar fare to the same clientele.
  •  A few kilometres south of the turf farm are the extensive tidal mudflats of Boundary Bay, which harbour huge flocks of wintering ducks.
  • Gulls and ducks in the area number in the tens of thousands.  The eagles regularly overfly roosting flocks, causing them to take flight.  Any bird that is injured, sick, or weak quickly becomes eagle dinner.

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Where do they come from?
Bald Eagles occur continent-wide and are most abundant in the west.  When nesting they are predominantly fish-eaters, and can be found on many large inland lakes and rivers as well as along the coast.  To illustrate: in 1968 I had the opportunity to spend the summer working on Great Slave Lake, NWT, and discovered that there were Bald Eagle nests at about every 3-4 miles of shoreline.  This for me was unexpected and rather exciting, being the first Baldies I had ever seen.  The following two images were digitized from colour slides taken 50 years ago.  For nesting sites the birds select the largest big old white spruce trees, a scarce commodity in that northern region.
When the interior waters freeze over, the eagles move to the coast, where they congregate along rivers with large salmon runs to feast on spawned-out carcasses.   After the salmon harvest they remain near tidewater, and many end up on the Fraser Delta, attracted by the food sources listed above.
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How many are there?
That’s often the second question asked, and one that is more difficult to answer.  The local Christmas Bird Count in late December 2016 reported 1200 eagles for the entire count area, of which 778 were recorded in and around the landfill.   These numbers must be somewhat excessive, because the birds move around during the day and there is no way of telling how many are counted more than once.   In late February 2017 (as mentioned above) I attempted a count but lost my number at somewhere around 400 – and had not quite completed the full sweep!  It is plausible that there may be as many as 1000 eagles in the near vicinity, and twice that many in the Lower Mainland.
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The 72nd Street Eagle-in could now be considered a world-class spectacle, easily enjoyed by anyone who wants to view and/or photograph these majestic and classic creatures.  It is ironic that birders have been coming to the turf farms for decades, mostly to look for gulls and shorebirds.  We more-or-less had the place to ourselves, and the owner of the turf farm was reasonably accommodating.  No longer so.
In 2017 the word gradually got out, and by mid February the area was invaded by hordes of on-lookers, many toting cameras with giant lenses.  On weekends the scene became so congested that the municipality had to step in and ban parking along the street beside the turf farm, as vehicles crammed along the roadside interfered with the normal movement of farm vehicles.  At a near-by park, dog-walkers complained about photographers taking up all the parking spaces, and there was even an aborted attempt to ban anyone without a dog from parking there!
The eagle photographers were often in a virtual frenzy.  Some returned day-after-day, taking thousands of rapid-fire images.  When standing near a cluster of them as an eagle took off from a tree, the clatter of the cameras sounded like that of a fire-fight on a battleground.  Many millions of images must have been recorded.
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I never take photography quite that seriously, but over the years I have managed to capture a few images worth keeping.  Here are some of my best.
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Eagle Bald landed 01:27:11 1778
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Of note: only the adult eagles have white heads, the rest are immatures.  In this next photo, the adult in the middle is addressing a group of attentive recruits and was heard to say, “Ok guys, listen up – the boss is watching! Those bird nirds over there with the telescopes are sorting through that field of seagulls, hoping to find a rarity.  When I take off you follow, and we’ll stir the flock up real good for ’em”.
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One last shot.  Count them up!
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Will 2018 bring with it another Eagle-in? We soon shall see.
Carlo
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