Bald Eagle Watching in Washington
If you are looking for something to do during the cold, wet season in the Pacific Northwest of the United States but still want to get outside, then we found an amazing family adventure, Bald Eagle watching! Every year from about mid-November to late February along the Skagit River in western Washington, hundreds of bald eagles come to feast on spawning salmon. Some eagles come from as far away as Alaska. These majestic birds can be seen sitting in trees along the river, swooping down to grab salmon with their powerful talons, hopping on gravel river shoals eating their catch, or soaring above as they glide on the mountain currents.
Peak viewing opportunities are from late December to early January. This coincides with the spawning salmon, who after laying their eggs, complete their life-cycle and die in large numbers in the river and its tributaries. This is a once a year opportunity for the eagles to feast on the fat rich fish so that they can put on needed weight during the winter to survive. As one animal dies another one gains a chance to live, such is the precarious balance of nature.
You will need to get up very early to spot the eagles in their native habitat. They start feeding at first light until around 10:00am. Afterwards, they take to the sky and soar high above the river as they catch rising thermals. After all, wouldn’t you if you were an eagle? In the afternoon, they return to perch atop tall trees on the river banks to rest.
This time of year can be very cold in the Skagit River valley, so dress appropriately. Temperatures vary from 25°F to 40°F. It is also the rainy season, so bring water-proof clothing and boots. Ironically, you have a better chance of seeing eagles on wet days than sunny ones. When the skies are clear, eagles are out flying! I also recommend packing a pic-nick lunch or late breakfast. After all, you are there to brave the elements to see eagles, not to sit inside to eat. A thermos of hot coffee, tea, or chocolate can help fend off the chill too. When you see these birds up close, you will quickly forget the cold and wet anyway. It is truly a memorable experience that will leave you with a sense of awe.
There are a few different ways to see the eagles. The Skagit River area is about two hours north of Seattle, Washington. You can drive north 45 miles on I-5 to Arlington and then head east on Highway 530. It is a beautiful drive. Highway 530 intersects into Highway 20 in approximately 50 miles. At the intersection is Howard Miller Steelhead State Park. This is one of the best places to see eagles and should be the first place on your trip to stop. In the park is the Skagit River Bald Eagle Interpretive Center. Admission is free. You can stop in and get loads of information on eagles and where to see them. Right before you go in, stop and check-out the large real eagle’s nest!
Head up river to mile post 100. There is a small park on the right, which is another great place to spot eagles. When we stopped, there was a group of eagle enthusiast volunteers and national park rangers waiting to answer questions, provide insight, and share in the experience. One volunteer had a 60X spotting scope set-up and pointed at an eagle directly overhead in a tree. With his scope, you could count the feathers on the eagle’s head!
I highly recommend heading up river another six miles to the Skagit River Fish Hatchery in Marblemount. They offer free guided tours of the hatchery. Our boys really enjoyed the tour, and learned some things too. We all had the opportunity to hold live salmon eggs and see the tiny fish moving inside. They also got free activity books for the ride home.
If you are really adventurous, you can take a float tour down the river. Trips leave from Howard Miller State Park. The tour service will take you by bus up river to a park just down river from the hatchery. From there, you will climb into eight person rafts. A guide will then take you along a scenic and informative ride down the slow moving river where you will probably see many eagles along the way. The tours also offer bus transportation from Seattle to the park for an additional fee.
We almost felt like National Geographic explorers. My wife was equipped with her camera fitted with a large zoom lens. Even though she does not like being cold, she was too excited about seeing eagles to care. Something about witnessing majestic acts of nature makes any hardships worth the experience. I know our boys will remember the trip. I know I will remember the look on my wife’s face as she joyfully clicked away on her camera like an excited school girl.