Bald eagles, the symbol of America, thrive in the temperate rainforest of coastal Alaska. The area provides all that they need: clean, unpolluted water, an abundance of fish (especially salmon), and expanses of undisturbed forest with massive trees for nesting. There are perhaps 50,000 birds along the Inside Passage of Alaska and British Columbia, far exceeding the sum found in all of the other states. Bald eagles usually nest along the coastline or major rivers, so an Alaska cruise provides daily sightings of these magnificent birds. With a wingspan of up to 7.5 feet, they are hard to miss.
Bald eagles take five years to reach their distinctive adult plumage: white head and tail standing out against the black body, and large, yellow hooked beak. The darker young birds are often confused with golden eagles.
Eagles use the same nest, high in an Old Growth Forest tree, each year. As twigs and branches are added, the nest becomes quite massive until, eventually, it falls. Commonly two eggs are laid on the nest platform, but fratricide (killing of siblings) is common. Early in the season the eagles feed on carrion such as winter-killed deer, and whatever fish they can capture. In July and August when the salmon spawning runs begin, the table is set. The eagles aggregate, together with bears, along spawning streams. They feed on late salmon runs and spawned-out fish through fall and early winter. The Chilkat River of Southeast Alaska, near Haines, is famous for its fall-winter aggregation of bald eagles.
Once bald eagles were killed in Alaska because salmon fishermen feared competition for the resource. Now they are fully protected for us to see and enjoy as symbols of freedom while we travel in Alaska. Now, however, bald eagle nesting habitat is threatened by the harvest of timber from Old Growth Forest. Fortunately, regulations require the protection of any eagle nesting tree and a buffer zone around it.
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