Schandelmeier: Open water, dead salmon draw eagles to Gulkana

John Schandelmeier

I drove along the Richardson Highway just north of Paxson on Sunday. The past week had been unseasonably warm. The snow has melted and the ponds and creeks are ice-free. The spawning sockeye salmon at the Paxson hatchery are past their peak and carcasses are scattered along the bars of the Gulkana River. This combination of events has created the best bald eagle viewing in years along this stretch of road.

There has always been a good fall concentration of eagles on the upper Gulkana. The natural late red salmon run at one of the warmer springs feeding the Gulkana provides easy nutrition for local eagles.

However, with the development of the salmon hatchery in the 1980s and 1990s, more and more eagles began to stop over in October and November. Usually the birds are scattered all along the river, not always road accessible, but the ice-free gravel bars along the Richardson Highway are providing great access for the eagles.

I counted more than 100 eagles in a four-mile section just above Paxson Lodge. There were more than 20 on a single gravel bar. Granted, this is nothing like the concentration of bald eagles on the Chilkat River near Haines, but hey, you have to admit it is pretty good for the Interior.

The big birds will stay as long as there is feed, no matter the weather. Usually some birds stay all winter. Minus-fifty-degree temperatures may drive them to the coast for a week or two, but they will be back. There is enough open water around Paxson and Tangle Lakes to provide whitefish during the winter months. Some years there are caribou carcasses from hunters and even a few wolf-kills.

Bald eagles like fish. They almost never nest more than a mile from open water. Fish comprise more than half of their diet wherever they occur. Bald eagles get a few waterfowl and an occasional small mammal, but primarily they live on fish and carrion. Hence the local coastal tag of "dumpster ducks."

The bald eagle is our national bird, but Ben Franklin wasn't pleased about it. He called the bald eagle "a bird of bad morals, who doesn't get his living honestly!" That said, one must admit they are impressive creatures

Female birds in Alaska weigh an average of 14 pounds. Their nests are huge. One recorded nest was 20 feet deep and 10 feet across. It weighed more than a ton.

The young hatch early and fly at eight to 12 weeks. They lack the distinctive white head until they are four or five, but their size will be the same as that of an adult.

Bald eagles live for 20 years in the wild. They may go twice that long in captivity. Back in the 1950s, they were placed on the endangered species list, mainly due to breeding problems caused by the chemical DDT. Concentrations of DDT in apex raptors caused calcium binding which resulted in thinning of eggshells and greatly reduced nesting success. When DDT was outlawed in the late 60s, the population of eagles and other raptors rebounded quickly.

Adult bald eagles have few natural predators. Power lines get a few, as do wind turbines. Some are poisoned or accidently trapped. For the most part, once they get past the first year, they are pretty safe. It is illegal for anyone other than a Native American to even possess an eagle feather, so predation by man is almost non-existent.

In years past that was not the case. An estimated 70,000 eagles were shot in Alaska between 1918-30. There was a $3 bounty paid for them prior to 1940. My mom grew up in the little town of Seldovia and she remembered taking in eagle claws for the bounty. I guess the feds thought the birds ate too many salmon.

Salmon are the reason Alaska is home to half of North America's eagle population. The best guess is between 50,000 and 60,000 birds, with the vast majority concentrated along the coast. Paxson hosts one of the better Interior populations.

The novelty of a very late sockeye run, plus a clear-water gravel bed stream immediately along the roadside, combines to make this the best viewing opportunity available within reasonable driving distance from our most populous Alaskan communities.

Bring your camera; see you here!

Daily News contributor John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives near Paxson. He commercial fishes in Bristol Bay and is a two-time Yukon Quest champion.


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