Vancouver snapshot: Bald eagles find a home in Canada

Winter clouds cover the Sea to Sky corridor, the 80-mile stretch between Olympic cities Whistler and Vancouver.
Winter clouds cover the Sea to Sky corridor, the 80-mile stretch between Olympic cities Whistler and Vancouver. (Remy Scalza For The Washington Post)
By Remy Scalza
Sunday, January 31, 2010

The highway turnoff is easy to miss. On the rugged stretch of mountain road that connects Olympic cities Vancouver and Whistler, B.C., just past the midway point, is a small, handmade sign. Look hard and you'll see a bald eagle in profile, beak painted a brilliant yellow, beady eye aglow.

Next stop: Brackendale, self-proclaimed World Eagle Capital.

"One year, we counted 3,769 bald eagles in one day," says 40-year resident and avian enthusiast Thor Froslev. "You practically had to have a hard hat on to go outside."

The bald eagle may be America's bird, but this tiny Canadian town boasts what might be the best eagle watching on the continent. Brackendale sits in a lush, fogged-in valley where moss-draped pines and glacial rivers meet the saltwater of the Pacific. In warm weather, it's a locus of outdoor adventure, from whitewater rafting to horseback riding. But the rainy winter months belong to the eagles. Starting in November, thousands of the outsize raptors congregate along rivers here, drawn by mild weather and a seemingly inexhaustible stock of salmon, which have long since concluded their upstream odyssey and lie dying in creeks and channels.

As I cruise into town, the heady smell of fish is in the air. So are the eagles. They're everywhere: looming massive and menacing in the tops of roadside trees; swooping low after unseen prey; tearing into fish on sandbars and riverbanks. I brake abruptly below a cluster of birds leering down from the bare branches of a cottonwood tree. Less impressed than I am, they cock an eye my way and then return to their reverie.

Unofficial headquarters for eagle fanatics is the Brackendale Art Gallery, a ramshackle cluster of cabins and studios on the edge of town. I park out front, next to a sculpture of a white unicorn. Inside is a riot of eagle action photos and fierce-looking sculptures and a glowing fireplace burning off the day's damp chill.

"I started counting the eagles 24 years ago," says eagle buff Froslev, who owns the gallery and dispenses free advice on the best places to bird-watch. He wears a bushy beard and a fisherman's bucket hat pulled low over a gray ponytail, and his eyes get deadly serious when talk turns to eagles.

"First there were the bounties on bald eagles, then the DDT poisoning, then the habitat loss from logging," he says, recounting a harrowing century of abuse. Concerned about Brackendale's birds, Froslev launched a grassroots campaign to protect them. Today, 1,500 acres of prime riverfront property are set aside as an eagle reserve, a testament to his efforts.

He sends me on my way with directions to some feeding grounds on a river north of town. I park in the woods near a railroad trestle and continue on foot, following tracks that thread deep into the forest. A low mist hangs over the mountains; the river sweeps by swiftly, swollen from recent rains. The smell is not so nice: a dead-fish funk, floating across the water in heavy waves. I must be closing in.

Suddenly, there's a flash of feathers and a whoosh of wings. From some perch high in the fog, an eagle dives down, leveling off just a few feet in front of me. Wings extend. That imperious white head thrusts forward. Then the bird is gone, swallowed back into the mist.

Back at the gallery, Froslev explains that what I've seen is still common but getting rarer all the time. "The eagles are our barometer for how the environment is," he says. "And we know now that something is wrong."

Like a disappointed parent, he confesses that the last few eagle counts have turned up fewer than a thousand birds, well below average. Theories on the nosedive run from natural cycles to Olympic-related development to local fish farms, which have reduced stocks of wild salmon, the eagles' primary food.

"It's hard to be the world's eagle capital without the eagles," Froslev says.

On this afternoon, however, Brackendale's legacy hardly seems in jeopardy. On the way out of town I pass Eagle Run, a waterfront park set aside especially for viewing. Groups huddle along the banks of the broad Squamish River, passing around binoculars and pointing excitedly at birds feeding on the far shore. One eagle takes flight, spinning higher and higher on an unseen updraft and finally vanishing into the cloudy sky.

Scalza is a food and travel writer based in Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

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