ROCKPORT, Wash. -- Last month's record rain, snow and ice storms in Washington state, which downed power lines and caused millions of dollars in property damage, had at least one welcome effect: A record number of bald eagles were counted in Skagit County, north of Seattle.
As Jim Alt, a bald eagle expert for the Nature Conservancy, stood in a clearing of hemlock, cottonwood, alder and silver fir trees in Howard Miller Steelhead Park, he pointed to a rocky bar in the Skagit River.
"On Jan. 2, there were 350 birds right here," Alt said. "I couldn't believe it. I thought I made a mistake. It was an incredible sight."
The annual National Midwinter Bald Eagle Survey coordinated by the U.S. Geological Survey occurs in 42 states and has helped document the recovery of the bald eagles, whose numbers had dropped by 1963 to only 417 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states.
The birds were listed as an endangered species in 1967, even before the Endangered Species Act became law in 1973.
Yet by 1995, the population had recovered to the point where its official status was changed from endangered to threatened. Today, there are more than 7,000 nesting pairs living in the contiguous United States, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering whether to remove the birds from the federal list of threatened species.
"Given the record number of breeding pairs distributed across the country, the evidence suggests that the bald eagle no longer needs the protection of the Endangered Species Act," said Chris Tollefson, chief of public affairs for the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The species still will have protection under other regulations, including the Bald Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Most biologists attribute the eagle's recovery in large part to the banning of the pesticide DDT in 1972. DDT was used widely to control insects, particularly mosquitoes. It not only directly poisoned the eagles and other birds, but also thinned the shells of their eggs and drastically reduced the number of hatchlings that survived.
"After DDT, the biggest threat to the eagles is humans, meaning primarily habitat destruction," said Jim Watson, a wildlife researcher with the Washington Department of Fish and Game, who studies migratory birds. He notes that while the eagles who winter along the Skagit River are not among the 7,000 pairs who nest in the contiguous United States, their recovery certainly has been aided by the eagles' being on the federal list.
The Nature Conservancy started the Skagit River Bald Eagle Natural Area in 1975 with 600 acres. Through partnerships, land acquisitions and donations, the area has grown to more than 8,000 acres.
"We don't really know why we had so many birds this year," said Bob Carey, the Nature Conservancy's program director for the Skagit River area. "A lot of factors play into it -- certainly the weather, but also the abundant food supply."
The Skagit River is a spawning ground for five species of salmon, including chum, which the eagles prefer.
In most places the counting occurs over one week in January. But at the Skagit River site, the birds are counted weekly from November through February. The eagles start to leave in February, returning north to their nesting areas.
Most of these eagles nest and breed in Alaska and western Canada.
"The more ice and snow in the winter, the farther south the birds will fly to find food," Watson said. "And most of our harsh weather this year came from the north. That may have brought more eagles to the Skagit River this year."
Counting eagles is no exact science. Alt carries a notebook and records the birds he sees in half-mile segments of his 12-mile territory along the river. While it is possible that some birds are counted twice, or overlooked, because the counting is done on a weekly basis during the winter roosting period, comparing the numbers week to week, year to year, validates the process.
And Alt clearly knows what he's doing. He records the behavior of each bird he counts -- eating, perching, circling -- and its age.
Young eagles are easy to spot, he said. "It isn't just the heads, it's also their size, and the way they fly."
The juveniles have brown heads, which turn to white as they mature over four to five years. The growing birds are larger than adult birds, with extra feathers like training wheels to help them fly.
Almost a month after the peak in the count, Alt easily spotted several eagles perched in the trees along the river. And he was not the only one. On a foggy morning, the parking lot was more than half full, and people with cameras lined a highway bridge near the entrance to the park.
Growing numbers of bald eagles winter here. The count has been done since 1979; at that time, only a handful of eagles were counted. This year, 580 birds were counted, up from the previous high of 477 in 1992.
"It's one of the Nature Conservancy's platform projects," Carey said. "And it shows how powerful these kinds of conservation partnerships can be, and what a difference can be made in the course of 30 years. I don't expect to see 580 eagles on the Skagit every winter, but our numbers are steadily increasing, and that's incredibly gratifying."