Armed with my camera and telephoto lens, I am heading to Brackendale in British Columbia early one morning. This is my second visit to the place where the iconic North American birds—bald eagles— meet in large groups to have a tasty meal on the river bank.
Eagles’ sharp eyes zoom in on salmon swimming upstream to find the best spot to lay their eggs. That’s why the eagles are there. If they don’t capitalize on the salmon run in the fall, before winter takes over, there will be no other major opportunity this year to obtain valuable nutrients to stay healthy and survive until next spring.
On my last visit here, a fellow nature photographer told me that it is worth coming in the early morning. He did so, and was rewarded by seeing a company of fifty eagles together, an ahead-of-schedule Christmas present in November for any nature lover. Taking his advice seriously, I am now walking alongside the river, looking for eagles. I am able to count them easily, because the number of eagles equals exactly zero. Well, maybe the guy exaggerated. Or maybe it’s because there was no snow cover last time. The cold weather started early this year. Maybe the snow scared them off and the salmon season is over. Who knows? I have a feeling I have wasted my time: no eagles in the sky, no eagles near the river, no eagles in the trees. I am leaving.
Twists and turns
This place is only a stone’s throw away from Whistler, so I think, “why not use it as a plan B?” But as I soon discover, there is not much to do there in winter if you don’t ski. My stay was limited to a one-hour coffee journey. I am soon on the road again, like Willie Nelson in his song, but in the opposite direction, back to Vancouver where I live.
I am passing by Brackendale again two hours after I left it, when something tells me to check on the eagle presence one more time.
In the sky, the river and the trees
I turn right from the highway and a few minutes later I’m back walking along the river, looking for eagles. I am not able to count them easily, but this time it’s because the number of eagles equals at least fifteen: two in the sky, five on the river bank and eight hiding in the trees. I assign a number to each individual. They don’t care, as long as there is a wide river between them and people, a safety buffer zone. They don’t mind being numbered, as long as they don’t feel their days are numbered.
Eagle enthusiasts meet at the river regularly and, as volunteers, explain to visitors everything they want to know about bald eagles. A frequent question is: why aren’t bald eagles bald, but white headed? In the question lies the answer: the word “bald” comes from an old English word “piebald,” meaning “white-headed.”
Giant river fridge
A white-headed gentleman-volunteer—or in eagle terminology, a “bald man”—sheds light on another mystery. He unknowingly restores the full credibility of the nature photographer I met last time in Brackendale, whose fifty-eagle story may have not been an exaggeration after all.
The reason behind my experience earlier this morning, when not one single bird of prey showed up, is simple. Since the water near river banks is frozen, eagles lose access to all dead salmon, which in the early mornings stays beneath the ice. No salmon—no reason to be there. Later, as the outside temperature rises, the ice cover melts and the salmon get released from captivity in their life after life. It sounds like a reasonable explanation to me. In this scenario, the river may be considered by eagles as a giant fridge keeping their valuable food fresh.
Five of the fifteen eagles I just counted stay on the river bank, on the other side of the river, of course. One of them was lucky enough to catch a big fish. He seems to be a very possessive individual and does not want the other eagles to have a bite. The slightly grayish color of the feathers on his head indicates that he is younger than his four friends. He eats the salmon by tearing off big portions of the meat while his colleagues, fellow eagles, watch him with jealousy. This is a problem—five eagles, but only one fish.
From time to time an eagle loses patience and tries to steal a piece from his lucky friend. Then a fight breaks out. The eagles jump on each other and threaten their rivals with their sharp, curved beaks. That’s when you hear a photographer’s camera shooting continuously in motor-drive mode. Details not visible to the human eye emerge clearly on the still images: one eagle is in the air above his friend, who’s trying to bite him, another eagle is lying on his back on the ice, a third rival is watching the fight, and a fourth guy, an opportunist, is tearing off portions of salmon quickly while the other two are jumping on each other. It’s an action movie in real natural life. Have you ever seen television images of Black Friday sales? This is the Brackendale bald eagle version of Black Friday. Not much on sale, and too many customers.
As time goes by, the salmon becomes smaller and smaller, his eagle owner less hungry and more willing to share it with friends. Some birds fly away with their stomachs full, some new eagles join the group to get their share and keep the party alive. Finally, only a fish bone is left on the river bank. That’s when the whole eagle theatre comes to its end. Each of the friends finds a perfect safe spot on a tree, somewhere high enough to not get bothered by people, somewhere where they can digest, watch the area, and plan their next salmon party. The water in the river slowly freezes, eagles and people disappear. Only the salmon silently move upstream to find the best spot to lay their eggs.
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