The Skagit River Bald Eagles
Taking a Skagit River Eagle Float Trip
I am fortunate to live about 2 hours away from an area of the Skagit River in Washington state where every winter large numbers of our national symbol, the bald eagle, gather. It is the wintering area for the largest number of eagles in North America and I have gone to see this amazing spectacle several times.
The birds migrate south to Washington from colder areas in Canada and Alaska. They congregate along the Skagit to spend the cold winter months in the milder climate and to enjoy the habitat and plentiful food supply of salmon found at the river. The bald eagles start arriving in November and reach their peak in December and January.
The American Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) was chosen as the national symbol of the United States because it is revered for its power, strength and beauty. For me there is nothing quite as thrilling as seeing a magnificent bald eagle soaring or swooping down to catch a fish in its natural habitat.
All photos by the author, Vicki Green - PNW Travels, unless credited otherwise.
Being only about 2 hours from Seattle, WA, the Skagit River is also one of the most accessible places to view large numbers of bald eagles. Washington State Highway 20, also known as the North Cascades Highway, runs near the river for many miles, so it is possible to see many eagles from the turnouts and parking areas along the highway, but the best way to see the eagles is to take a float trip in a raft down the river.
On this page I'm sharing what I've learned about why the eagles come to the Skagit River each winter, the story of how the bald eagle became endangered and what was done to help them recover. Join me as I celebrate the return of the eagles at the Skagit River Bald Eagle Festival in January and see what it is like to see the eagles while floating down the Skagit River in a raft.
Where Can You See Bald Eagles in Winter?
The Skagit River is located about 2 hours north of Seattle, Washington. Although bald eagles congregate along many miles of the river, the most accessible area to see them is in the Bald Eagles Natural Area, a 10 mile stretch of protected eagle habitat along the river between Marblemount and Rockport, Washington. There are several viewing spots from the riverbank at parks and turnouts along the North Cascades Highway which is also known as highway 20. Some of the best places to view eagles along Highway 20, are at Mileposts 98, 100 and 101. An especially popular place to stop is Milepost 100, the Sutter Creek rest area, which has ample parking and an excellent viewpoint. Or, to see even more bald eagles, you can take a float trip down the river.
A Map of the Skagit River Bald Eagle Natural Area
Why do bald eagles come to the Skagit River?
Where do the Skagit River eagles come from each winter?
The bald eagles begin arriving on the Skagit River in November and their numbers reach a peak in December and January. They travel south from Alaska and Canada to the habitat along the river where they find a warmer climate and a plentiful food supply. The Skagit is the second largest river in the state of Washington and the river and its tributaries are home to several species of salmon. Mature salmon return to the river to spawn after spending 4 years in the Pacific Ocean. After spawning they die and their bodies wash up on the gravel bars along the river. The huge numbers of dead and dying salmon make it an "all you can eat" buffet for the eagles. Along the riverbanks are tall cottonwood, big leaf maple and western red cedar trees providing habitat where the eagles can perch and roost in between meals.
How many people have seen a wild bald eagle? - Let's take a poll
Many People Have Never Seen a Wild Bald Eagle
Have you ever seen a wild and free bald eagle?
Saving the Bald Eagle From Extinction
In the 1960s the magnificent bald eagle was in trouble. Their numbers were dwindling from the effects of the pesticide DDT, shrinking habitat and a reduction in the numbers of fish, their primary food source.
DDT (Dichloro Diphenyl Trichloroethan) was a pesticide used heavily in the US and elsewhere around the world starting in the late 1940s, and was very effective at killing insects, but also had the unintended consequences of causing abnormally thin eggshells in birds. As the DDT moved up the food chain it became more and more concentrated at each level. Since birds of prey are near the top of the food chain their bodies absorbed the highest concentration of DDT and their egg shells were the most effected. To bring the eagle back from possible extinction, the fight began to ban DDT in the US in the 1960s. To protect their profits the chemical industry fought back so it wasn't until 1972 that DDT was finally banned in the US. Even after its ban almost 40 years ago, DDT still persists in the environment. The thickness of bird egg shells collected before the use of DDT have been measured and compared to the thickness of bird shells from recent years and the egg shells of many species of birds today are still 10-12% thinner than before the use of DDT.
Another important event that helped to save the bald eagle from extinction was the enactment of the Endangered Species Act in 1973. It became an important tool to stop habitat destruction and provide funding for habitat protection. Critical areas were identified and protected or purchased by the state and federal government as well as non-profit organizations. The act allowed evaluation and protection of the entire ecosystem upon which the eagle depends including large old trees for roosting and nesting and the salmon spawning streams that provide them with food.
Since 1973 over 8,000 acres along the Skagit River and thousands more acres of upland forests have been protected through the efforts of many organizations and agencies working together including the US Forest Service, US National Park Service, North Cascades Institute, Skagit Audubon Society, Wildcat Steelhead Club, The Nature Conservancy and the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Through these efforts, and similar efforts across the US, the numbers of bald eagles have increased. Fortunately they have recovered from the brink of extinction and have now been removed from the endangered species list.
Fly Like an Eagle
Boating on the Skagit River
Follow the Rules When Rafting Through Eagle Preserve
Although I've gone up to the Skagit River during the winter and looked at the wintering bald eagles from viewing areas from the riverbank, I finally realized a long-held wish to take a float trip down the river in a raft in January 2011. I went with Chinook Expeditions, a professional river guide company that specializes in bald eagle float trips. There are several commercial river guides who offer float trips down the river and they all comply with rules established by the US Coast Guard and US Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure the safety of passengers in the rafts and to minimize any adverse impact to the eagles.
Map at Marblemount, WA
Rain Gear is an Essential for a Winter River Float Trip
What to Wear on a Winter Skagit River Float Trip
The daytime winter high temperatures in the Skagit Eagle Natural Area are usually in the 30s and low 40s and may be even colder. It is also the wettest time of the year so it is not unusual to have rain or snow. To enjoy a float trip in the winter it is important to dress properly to stay warm and dry while sitting in a raft on the river for 3 to 4 hours. The professional river guides supply life jackets as part of their service.
Donning Our Gear Before Our Trip Down the River
Dressing in Layers to Stay Warm
Underneath the waterproof raingear, it is important to dress in layers to stay warm, starting with thermal underwear.
Fleece or Down Jacket to Keep Warm
Polar fleece or Down Jackets to Keep Warm
One layer of clothing made from polar fleece or down is recommended.
Skagit River Eagle Float Trip Rafts and Guides
Boarding our Raft in Marblemount, WA
After donning our rain gear and life jackets we climbed into our raft. Most of the professional outfitters use inflatable rafts that hold 6 to 8 people. The rafts are steered with oars and are not equipped with motors to allow everyone to enjoy the natural sounds of the river and reduce the possibility of disturbing the eagles. This is a photo of our guide, Andrea, in the bright yellow raft right before we boarded to float down the river. Before departing on our journey we were given several minutes of safety instruction to prevent taking what Andrea called "a swim in the river", and what to do if someone did fall in. Our launch point was just across the bridge from the town of Marblemount, WA where the Cascade River flows into the Skagit.
Don't Forget your head, hands and feet - Hats, gloves and socks
Hats, socks and gloves are important to feel warm and comfortable on a cold, wet winter day. Since I tend to feel cold easily, I like to bring along hand and foot warmers, too.
How Many Bald Eagles Will You See on a Trip Down the Skagit?
The numbers of eagles seen along the 10 mile stretch of river we floated down can vary considerably from day to day. Their numbers peak in December and then start decreasing. By the end of March all that remains are the much fewer numbers of resident bald eagles.
Fewer eagles are usually seen on sunny days because they prefer to soar high overhead on the thermals in the sun after feeding. On cold rainy days, they hunker down and seek shelter from the rain under the branches of evergreen trees, but then they can be hard to see in the dim light.
It also depends on how good your guide and the other people in your raft are at spotting the birds. It helps to have "an eagle eye". (Pardon the pun!) On any given day, there may be more than 200 birds or perhaps as few as a half dozen. Our trip down the river was on January 22nd with an uncertain weather forecast when we departed in the morning for our adventure. As we made our preparations to launch we were all guessing how many bald eagles we would see.
Make your prediction below. To see if your prediction was correct, scroll down the page to the "So How Many Bald Eagles Did We See?" section.
So How Many Bald Eagles Did We See on the Skagit River?
How Many Eagles Do You Think We Saw?
Spot the Bald Eagles - A good pair of binoculars is essential
There are binoculars to fit any budget and any will help you increase your enjoyment of viewing wildlife. I recommend a water resistant or waterproof model for the rainy Pacific Northwest.
What does a Bald Eagle Call Sound Like?
If you are looking for a particular species of bird, it really helps to know what its call sounds like. If you hear one, you will know there is one nearby and it makes it easier to know where to look from the direction of the sound. In many movies where a bald eagle makes an appearance, the more ominous and majestic call of a red tail hawk is commonly dubbed in instead. So if you haven't heard it before, you may be surprised to hear what a bald eagle really sounds like.
The Sound of a Bald Eagle
A Close-up Photo of a Bald Eagle Sunbathing in a Tree - A Skagit River bald eagle dries her feathers in the sun
Distinguishing Male from Female Eagles
Since male and female bald eagles have no difference in their plumage, the usual way to determine the gender is by size. Due to the large size, our guide told us that the bald eagle in the photo above is probably a female. In most birds of prey species, including bald eagles, the females are larger than the males. The day before our trip and during the night it had rained heavily, so when the sun came out, she was fluffing her feathers and stretching out her wings to dry.
Bald Eagle Fun Facts
Wingspan: 6 to 8 feet
Weight: 10 to 14 pounds
Females are larger than males
Top Flight Speed: 30-35 mph
Average Lifespan: 15 to 20 years
Latin name means: "white-headed sea eagle"
Photos of Bald Eagles from Our Trip Down the Skagit - Some Pictures of Some of the Bald Eagles We SawClick thumbnail to view full-size
A View of El Dorado Peak from the Skagit River
The Scenic Beauty of the Skagit River and North Cascades
Although we were busy trying to spot eagles in the trees, there were other scenes to be enjoyed. This is one of many views we saw of beautiful El Dorado Peak (elevation 8,868') in nearby North Cascades National Park.
More Bald Eagle Trivia
Eagles don't breed until 4-5 years old
Eagles use the same nest every year
An eagle nest may weigh up to 2 tons
Bald eagles mate for life
Young eagles are dark brown
Bald eagles are 5 years old before they have a white head and tail
Pacific Northwest Float Trips
The video bellow is of an eagle float trip created by Pacific Northwest Float Trips, one of the professional guide services. This video also includes some scenes of sea lions and eagles in Puget Sound near the mouth of the Skagit, but this is not normally included as part of the eagle float trip.
Watch a Float Trip Down the Skagit
Take a Bald Eagle Float Tour Down the Skagit River
Bald Eagle float trips down the Skagit River are offered between November and the first week in March. The trip passes through a 10 mile length of river where the largest concentration of wintering Bald Eagles anywhere in the lower 48 states is found. You can expect to see beween 20 to 200 or more eagles in their natural habitat. The Bald Eagles migrate south from Canada and Alaska to find plentiful food and clean water. The Skagit River, with a large number of salmon and bordered by large maple and cottonwood trees for roosting provides the environment that suits their needs. There are numerous quality outfitters you can book with including Pacific Northwest Float Trips.
Another "You Are Here" sign as we arrive at the end of our float trip down the Skagit River at Rockport
So How Many Eagles Did We Spot on our Skagit River Float Trip?
This is a photo of the "You are Here" map at the end of our journey at Howard Miller Steelhead Park in Rockport, WA. Two and a half hours and 10 miles from our starting point in Marblemount. Because the river was high after several days of heavy rains, the river was running faster than normal. Since the rafts float with the speed of the river, our trip was a bit shorter than normal.
By the time we completed our trip down the river we had counted a total of 42 bald eagles - an average of 4 each mile or one every quarter of a mile.
There were probably more that we didn't spot. Just to underscore the point that how many you see depends on how good your guide and companions are at spotting the birds: we talked to the people in the raft immediately behind us and they said they only saw 8 birds! We could see their raft for nearly the entire trip, so they should have been able to see most, if not all, of the same birds that we saw.
Celebrating the Annual Return of the Bald Eagles to the Skagit River
The Skagit River Bald Eagle Festival
The Skagit River Bald Eagle Festival is a month long celebration held every January. Events include photography workshops, music, arts, crafts, eagle watching bus tours, salmon hatchery tours, cheese and wine tasting, and a pancake breakfast. Naturalists are on hand with binoculars and spotting scopes at popular viewing sites along the river and there are numerous other activities including a close-up look at eagles that are being rehabiliated.
THE 2016 SKAGIT RIVER EAGLE FESTIVAL IS A MONTH LONG CELEBRATION EVERY WEEKEND IN JANUARY
For more information about the Eagle Festival and organizations supporting the eagles, see the links below.
More Information About the Skagit River Bald Eagles - Links to agencies and organizations
- Skagit Eagle Festival 2016 Concrete, Washington
The Skagit Eagle Festival is a week long festival held each January.
- Skagit Wildlife Area | Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife
The Bald Eagle Natural Area encompasses 2,450 acres along the upper Skagit River at the confluence with the Sauk River east of Concrete, WA. The property was acquired starting in 1975 to protect bald eagle wintering habitat. The unit consists of matu
- The Nature Conservancy Bald Eagle Area
It's that time of year again: Snow is flying in the mountains, while birds are flying south. And around the Skagit River and Delta, wildlife viewing is taking on an exciting new dimension.
- Skagit River Bald Eagle Awareness Team
The Skagit River Bald Eagle Awareness Team (SRBEAT) sponsors an Skagit Eagle Interpretative Center at Howard Miller Steelhead Park in Rockport, WA and also organizes educational programs about the bald eagles of the Skagit River. Their website also p
- Sardis Raptor Center - Home
Sardis Raptor Center was founded in 1989 as a nonprofit organization by it's present director, Sharon Wolters. It operated as a rehabilitation center for all species until 1995 when it began to specialize in birds of prey. Thousands of hawks, owls, f
- Sarvey Wildlife - Home
Volunteering. Sarvey Wildlife has an average of 100 volunteers who come in on a weekly basis. They help clean and feed all of our wildlife patients.