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Winter is the best time to view bald eagles feeding on salmon

By John D. Carr
The Oregonian

Winter is the best time to view bald eagles feeding on salmon; take a short day trip from Portland to find them

Sighting a bald eagle in the Pacific Northwest in the 1950s-60s was a once-in-a-blue-moon rarity. Now it seems like every time I'm hiking or fishing near the Portland area, I spot at least one eagle.

In 1963 there were estimated to be fewer than 500 breeding pairs of Haliaeetus leucocephalus in the Continental United States. By 2006 there were close to 10,000 breeding pairs. It is truly one of the great comeback stories, thanks to the banning of the chemical DDT and federal protection of the species.

Frank Isaacs, longtime Oregon State University senior research biologist, has been keeping track of bald eagle nesting sites since the 1970s. He estimates there are over 600 nesting pairs of bald eagles in Oregon and the lower Columbia River.

"One of the interesting revelations to researchers about bald eagle behavior over the last 20 years is their ability to adapt to human activity," Isaacs says. "Due to federal protection, they have lost much of their fear of people and will now nest close to cities. It is much easier for the average person to see bald eagles today than we ever imagined."

Bald eagles can be found near the Portland area any time of the year, often spotted perching in tall trees. But the easiest season to see them is in the late fall and winter near rivers or creeks where salmon are spawning and dying. To eagles, dead salmon are the height of gourmet delights.

And in the fall and winter there are many more bald eagles to see. The resident eagles are joined by eagles migrating from the north, east and south, including Alaska, Yellowstone National Park, Arizona and California. The migrant population doubles or triples the bald eagle population in Oregon; most migrants leave in March.

Unlike vultures, with which they're sometimes confused, bald eagles aren't really bald. The word "bald" comes from an old English word meaning white. Adult bald eagles gain their distinctive bright white heads and tails in four or five years. Young eagles' plumage is primarily dark brown.

Why do the adults have that distinguishing bright white head and tail feathers?

"It likely is an expression of fitness," says Steve Engel, Adult Education Programs manager for the Audubon Society of Portland. "For example, a large adult eagle, with its very visible, bright white head perched near its nest, is a very clear warning to other eagles and predators to stay away. Not much energy needs to be expended by the eagle to achieve its objective."

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