ROCKPORT — David Burnett of Everett didn’t know until recently that boat tours to view bald eagles on the Skagit River were available.
His girlfriend, Richelle Thomas — who lives in Texas — discovered them online.
Burnett and Thomas were among six people who took a ride down the river Friday to get a look at America’s national symbol in person.
“I’ve been here for 10 years, I didn’t know about it,” Burnett said after the tour. “I’m glad I found out about it. I’ll recommend it to friends for sure.”
The number of eagles has dropped off since December, said tour guide Wayne Ackerlund, a Snohomish native who owns and operates Skagit River Guide Service along with his wife, Melissa.
Still, the group on Friday saw 36 eagles in an eight-mile stretch of the river between Marblemount and Rockport.
“It was great,” said Janice Sears of Seattle, one of the guests on the boat.
From Dec. 15-25 — the peak viewing time, Ackerlund said — his groups have seen as many as 300 eagles a day on that same stretch of river. The eagles come to northwest Washington rivers from Canada and even southeast Alaska in the fall and early winter to feed on salmon carcasses after the fish have spawned.
Recently, the count was down to about 180 eagles a day because of a smaller fish run this year, Ackerlund said.
He and his wife always let their guests know beforehand how the viewing is going, he said. Also, eagle counts for several sectors of the river are taken by the U.S. Forest Service and posted at www.skagiteagle.org.
The Ackerlunds, who operate a commercial fishing boat in Alaska in the summer, begin their tours on the Skagit in November and run them seven days a week into February, depending on the viewing. On busy days, the Ackerlunds operate three boats altogether.
Their work coincides in part with the annual Skagit Eagle Festival, which runs each weekend in January. The event, organized by the Concrete Chamber of Commerce, includes boat tours through several companies, a museum open house, a hayride, bonfire and arts and crafts. Some of the activities are centered at the Skagit River Bald Eagle Interpretive Center in Rockport.
Also, the city of Arlington and Stillaguamish Tribe have scheduled their sixth annual Arlington-Stillaguamish Eagle Festival for Feb. 1-2 in Arlington. That event includes rafting, a chain saw carving show, nature tours, exhibits, arts and crafts and entertainment.
On Friday, Melissa Ackerlund expressed sadness at the recent shooting of at least three bald eagles at a lake near Granite Falls. Four eagles were found dead in the lake Jan. 9; three of the eagles had bullet wounds, and it’s believed the fourth was shot as well. Wildlife agents are investigating.
“It was just absolutely devastating,” she said. “I hope they find who did it.”
Eagles were removed from the federal list of endangered species in 2007 but are still afforded protection under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940, which has been updated several times since.
According to the law, it’s illegal to take, possess, sell, buy, barter, transport, import or export any bald or golden eagle or any of their parts, nests or eggs.
Along the Skagit, many eagle enthusiasts look for the birds from viewpoints along Highway 20 as well as from boats. The best viewing areas are from Rockport east, officials have said.
Viewers are encouraged to pull all the way off the road and park only on turnouts or parking lots; to stay off gravel bars on the river and not to trespass on private property. The best time to see eagles feed on the banks is early in the morning, experts say.
Guests on Wayne Ackerlund’s boat on Friday not only were able to enjoy the eagles but other wildlife and scenic vistas as well.
Ackerlund rattled off facts about eagles, salmon, other birds, beavers and nearby mountains as he skillfully maneuvered his 21-foot aluminum rowboat down the river to give guests the best vantage. He pointed out a couple of beaver dams and numerous trees that clearly had been felled by beavers.
Ackerlund clearly loves the outdoors. He couldn’t keep away from the Pilchuck River as a boy.
“I skipped school to go to the river,” he said.
He began operating guided fishing trips for steelhead on the Skagit River in 1997. About seven years ago, the steelhead fishing started to decline, so he and his wife began the eagle tours.
“I saw the writing on the wall,” he said.
Skagit Eagle Festival: http://tinyurl.com/bkaxp98; 360-853-8784 or 360-853-8767
Arlington-Stillaguamish Eagle Festival: http://tinyurl.com/a7ln3b8; 360-403-3448
Skagit River Bald Eagle Interpretive Center: http://www.skagiteagle.org; 360-853-7626
Skagit River Guide Service: http://tinyurl.com/a2lbprj; 888-675-2448