“I see four, five – no, six!” shouted the excited troupe of five kids with me as soon as we got out of the car near the Welcome Bridge along the Nooksack River, just off the Mt. Baker Highway, northeast of Bellingham.
In our sites were the bald eagles gathered around the Nooksack to feed on the salmon that swim upstream to spawn. The previous year we made this same trek and saw only two or three of the majestic creatures that day, so a quick count of a half-dozen birds was immediate redemption.
I’ve learned that eagle watching can be an elusive thing – weather conditions and time of day are key to some really good viewing. From my experience, I have three “rules” to share that I hope will help you get the most out of your eagle-watching adventure.
Rule 1: Even-numbered years make for better viewing.
Here’s a fun fact: “Even” numbered winters tend to have higher rate of salmon returning upstream to spawn, which makes for a better showing of eagles. That means our current winter, 2020-2021 is actually an odd-numbered year, so the turnout might not be as great as last year. Eagles are often also most prevalent in the month of December, although this also depends on weather conditions.
Whether you are searching out our national bird in a “good” year of an “off” one, you’re likely to still get a good show if you follow my other two tips.
After being wowed by my friends’ social media posts from their own eagle-watching excursions during an even year, I wanted in on the action. Then the holidays got busy and it wasn’t until mid-January that I finally loaded up the kids in the family minivan to seek out our bald-headed buddies. We didn’t get on the road until early afternoon following a leisurely Sunday morning pancake breakfast.
Unfortunately, the eagles were probably busiest dining on salmon while we were enjoying our pancakes, which leads to….
Rule 2: Eagles are more likely to be active in the morning.
From about sunrise to 10 a.m. is your best bet for seeing the bald eagles in action feeding. The golden hour before sunset is another time when you’re likely to see lots of activity as the eagles get in one last nosh before they bed down for the night.
Our destination for eagle watching was the Welcome Bridge along Mosquito Lake Road. About 16 miles from Bellingham along the Mt. Baker Highway, Mosquito Lake Road will be on your right (look for the Welcome Grocery on the corner), and it’s just another mile to Welcome Bridge park along the Nooksack. The small park provides only parking for a handful of vehicles, but just before the bridge, there is ample parking next to the fire station (just be sure not to block the driveway for their emergency vehicles).
And safety note for parents: If you park at the fire station, you’ll need to walk with your little ones across the bridge on a narrow sidewalk, or on the road itself. It’s not far, but it’s definitely a place to be watchful.
As soon as you are out of the car, start looking and listening for the eagles. You can often hear them chattering in the trees to either side of the river. The Welcome Bridge parking area gives way to a steep step down to onto the rocky bank along the Nooksack.
You’re likely to be greeted by the smell the dead salmon left over from the eagles’ smorgasbord, as well as see the skeletal carcasses of what remains after the eagles, and then the seagulls, dine. The kids thought the stinky fish skeletons were equally as interesting as the great birds perched in the trees.
To spot the eagles, look to the bare branches of the deciduous trees along the near shore or across to the evergreens on the far shore. If you’re lucky enough to catch the eagles during feeding time, you will be front and center for the show.
As I said before, eagles are more likely to be feeding and active in the early morning hours, the other key to success – they tend to like cloudy days.
Rule 3: Eagles tend to be more active on cloudy days.
It was a blustery, rainy afternoon when we ventured out. Just a week after a significant snowfall and chilly temperatures in the preceding days, the parking areas and some of the roadways were still slick with ice. We did fine but do be prepared for winter driving conditions.
The gray afternoon did seem to be to the eagles’ liking, and we’d barely stepped out of the car by the time the kids had counted those six eagles. Down by the river, we could see as many as seven birds perched in the trees above us.
Another sat out in the middle of the river on a sandbar. He must have known he had an audience, and either being camera shy or unwilling to perform for his adoring public, he sat there the entire time we spent along the edge of the river!
After about a half hour in steadily increasing rain, we decided to pack up, soggy but satisfied until next year.
More eagle watching
Another nearby spot that may prove good for viewing the eagles is Deming Homestead Eagle Park. The park is located on Truck Road about two miles west of the Welcome Bridge. (Truck Road intersects with Mosquito Lake Road across from the fire station.)
The park has a small parking lot and plenty of picnic tables along the trail, with beautiful views of the hills to the east. While we didn’t see any eagles on the morning we stopped, the park is now on my list to explore during the summer months.
Another favorite place to watch the eagles gliding overhead is the Blue Mountain Grill, a diner on Highway 9 in Acme. The restaurant isn’t offering dine-in service due to Covid-19 precautions, but when you can, find a window seat and you’ll be endlessly entertained as the eagles make lazy circles overhead while you enjoy a burger and a brew.