Not even the eagles came to the canceled Alaska Bald Eagle Festival

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The Chilkat River at sunset. (Photo by Claire Stremple/KHNS)

The annual Alaska Bald Eagle Festival in Haines usually draws visitors from around the continent. It was cancelled this year due to COVID-19 — and even the eagles didn’t show.

It’s touted as the largest congregation of eagles in the world. They’re drawn by the thousands to the confluence where the Tsirku River, warmed by groundwater, meets the Chilkat River. The water cuts a dark slash through the otherwise frozen landscape, an unfrozen place where eagles can fish.

Stacy Evans, a biologist for the conservation group Takshanuk Watershed Council, is in charge of counting the birds this year. Someone has kept track almost every season since the late 1980s.

“I counted 46 eagles from this spot. And that’s consistently low. So in a normal year, we count eagles in the hundreds from this area, sometimes up to 500,” she said.

That’s 500 eagles in one spot on the river. Total numbers are usually in the thousands. But most of the eagles didn’t return this year, almost as if they knew their festival was cancelled.

The American Bald Eagle Foundation runs the festival. Sidney Campbell manages the raptor program.

“We throw the festival to celebrate the return of the eagles every year, and to celebrate them just as this really iconic and charismatic and culturally important species,” she said.

There are some eagles in the cottonwoods that line the Chilkat River. Most of them have fluffed out their feathers to dry after fishing. A late run of chum salmon draws them here from as far away as Washington state.

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But the chum salmon run on the Chilkat was a record low this year — just a fraction of the expected return. It’s impacted the whole ecosystem: eagles, fishermen and bears. The bears have been so hungry in Haines that they’re breaking into houses and cars to find food.

Now, without eagles, the birders and wildlife photographers are scarce as well. In a typical year, this stretch of beach is filled with them.

“No festival is leaving a great hole in my year,” said Al Batt. “So we kind of plan our year around my wife and I being in Haines in November. So it was a great blow for us like somebody hit me in the Adam’s apple.”

Batt lives in Hartland, Minnesota, but he says he’s come to Haines for the Alaska Bald Eagle Festival for longer than he can remember. He often guides birders and photographers along the river to get that perfect shot — an eagle swooping in on a salmon carcass, talons out and 7-foot wingspan flared to arrest its dive.

There’s far less of that this year.

“The fact is, if there are salmon here, there will be eagles here,” says Evans, the watershed council biologist. “So you know that the eagles are probably fine finding calories somewhere else this year, but we definitely need strong salmon runs to basically fuel the entire ecosystem here.”

Why the salmon aren’t showing up is a little more complicated. Some say overfishing decades back harmed the return. Others think hatchery fish are competition for wild resources.

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Evans says the river temperatures are trending up.

“Climate change is sort of that nebulous, multi-faceted problem that is certainly contributing to issues with salmon. We have seen already here some higher temperatures in the rivers. 2020 was cooler, as most people probably noticed. But 2019, especially, we were seeing some major spikes in parts of the river,” she said.

Evans says the eagles that are here this year are the locals. Which means roughly 80 percent of the eagles usually seen in Haines stayed home.

There’s only one photographer camped out on the beach today, a small blur of camo against the snow. His lens follows an eagle glide towards a stand of cottonwood. Below, the dark back of a salmon flickers in the water.

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