Haines, Alaska “The Valley of the Eagles”

Haines has been labelled as “The Valley of the Eagles” due to the large annual influx of bald eagles in November. It is situated at the northern end of North America’s longest fjord on a peninsular between the Chilkoot and Chilkat Rivers.  This city was originally inhabited by Chilkat (Tlingit) Indians who called the area ‘Dei Shu” which means End of the Trail. 

Map of Haines, Alaska
Haines Sunrise at 9 am
Haines sunrise at 9am!

Haines main industry is fishing (halibut and salmon) timber and tourism.  The main tourist attraction in Haines is the 200,000-hectare Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve (est.1982), which is home to bald eagles. Every year in November, the Haines American Bald Eagle Foundation hosts the Bald Eagle Festival which coincides with the world’s largest gathering of bald eagles. Approximately 2000 – 4000 bald eagles fly in within a very short space of time. They are drawn to this area due to the late salmon run just prior to the Chilkat river freezing over. The festival includes guided naturalist trips, educational wildlife exhibits and presentations. They also offer opportunities to observe rehabilitated eagles be released back into the wild.

Chilkat River
Chilkat River

This festival attracts hundreds of photographers and tourists from all around the world who descend as quickly and efficiently as the eagles to this area, wanting to observe and photograph these amazing birds of prey.

The Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve was established by the State of Alaska to protect the world’s largest concentration of bald eagles, their habitat and to sustain and protect the natural salmon run.

The river “flats” of the Chilkat River, along the Haines Highway between Miles 18 and 21, are the main viewing area for Bald Eagle Festival watchers and are considered a critical habitat in the Preserve.

The river flats of the Chilkat River
Bald Eagles

Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) have been the national emblem of the United States of America since 1782. The eagles are identified by their white heads, brown bodies and yellow hooked beaks. In the 1950’s their numbers started to dramatically decline due to the use of the chemical DDT. Conservation endeavours by the USA government were successful in banning the use of DDT and the population of bald eagles increased.

A pair of sparring bald eagles
A pair of sparring bald eagles

Bald eagles are not actually bald but have snowy-white feathers on their head. They got their name from an old English word “balde” meaning white.

There are approximately 400 resident bald eagles and around 80 bald eagle nests in the Haines preserve.

Bald Eagle with a birds eye view!
Bald Eagle with a birds eye view!

Bald Eagle Facts

  • Weight: 3 – 7 kg
  • Wingspan: 2.4 metres
  • Flying speeds: 160km/h
  • Lifespan in the wild: 28 years
  • Female eagles are bigger than males
  • Their bodies are up to 1 metre long.

Bald eagles are one of the largest raptors in the world. Their habitats are located near water sources, as their main diet is fish, ducks, snakes and turtles. They also will eat rabbits, muskrats and feast on dead animals. 

Bald Eagles locking talons in mid air
Bald Eagles locking talons in mid air

Possessed with acute eyesight and powerful talons they attack by swooping down on their prey on an angle and use their hooked beak to penetrate their prey.

Bald Eagle eagerly guarding its freshly caught salmon
Bald Eagle eagerly guarding is freshly caught salmon

Bald eagles’ nests are called ‘aeries’ or ‘eyries’. They build their nests into the top of tall large trees to keep them safe. The aeries are large up to 1.5 metre in diameter and 0.50 metre deep and can weigh up to 900 kg. Many eagles will return each year to their aeries and will just add more twigs, sticks and grasses.

There are many bald eagles and nests in the trees. They purposely will make their nests far from humans
There are many bald eagles and nests in the trees. They purposely will make their nests far from humans

Bald eagles can soar over 3000 metres elevation. Eagles can see prey up to 1.6 km away, they can then drop down at speeds of 161 km/h to snare the prey. They may glide just above the water to snag a fish with their feet before flying off to devour it.

Eagles will lay 1-3 eggs a year, not all of which will hatch or survive. Both parents take turns in incubating the eggs which takes around 30 – 35 days to hatch.  Hatchlings or eaglets are born with light grey fluffy feathers which start to change to brown around 3 weeks old. By 4 – 5 years they will have their distinctive white head and brown body.

 

Early morning on the Chilkat River Bald Eagle Preserve
Early morning on the Chilkat River Bald Eagle Preserve
Conservation status

Due to extensive conservation programs and the discontinuation of the use of DDT the bald eagles were removed from the IUCN endangered list and were reclassified from endangered to ‘least concern of extinction’. However, while bald eagles have very few predators, apart from humans, they are still at risk due to habitat loss caused by deforestation and illegal hunting.

 

References

https://www.alaska.org/detail/alaska-bald-eagle-festival

https://www.alaska.org/detail/the-american-bald-eagle-foundation-and-live-raptor-center

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