[Continued from Proof of Life Photography - Part 1]
We turned onto Mt. Baker Highway at Bellingham, heading for a bend in the Nooksack River in northern Washington. On clear days, the snow-tipped Mount Baker looms over the road eastward. On this day, we had just the knowledge of her presence — in silent repose behind mountain brume.
This fork in the Nooksack is a known spot for Bald Eagles scavenging salmon carcasses in the winter … the fish now expired after their long haul upstream. The salmon fulfilled their life mission — leaving their legacy in eggs laid among pebbles of the river bed. There’s one popular clearing in tall forest on the highway bridge, where photographers gather and hope for proximity and light. When we arrived, the eagles were perching, preening and drying their wings at the very far end of my lens, their colors muted under a pewter sky. I counted 75 eagles in the trees but there were probably a 100 or more.
We continued northward and an hour later, we crossed into Canada after answering the requisite questions: no gifts, no goods, no weapons. I lived in Vancouver years ago and always marveled at how easily my Canadian border friends let me slip through, while the guardians of my home country quizzed me for minutes on end because of my Canadian residence. I can’t think of one time I crossed the border at Blaine where a U.S. customs official didn’t question my whole reason for living … on account of my expatriation.
I love the delineation between Washington and British Columbia … the joy of international travel just a quick hop from home. We passed through Peace Arch Park and detoured west into Delta, turning near Boundary Bay Airport to walk along the dike of the Provincial park. It’s a marshy habitat reminiscent of our Bay Area home, where the Snowy Owls congregated en masse last year and the year before, and where vole-loving raptors like harriers scout for meals in the grasslands. We watched Short-eared Owls leap from fence posts and perform aerials in the misty wetlands as the light faded hard to blue.
We heard the owls calling to each other before we saw their bat-like maneuvers in the reeds. Photographer Christian Sasse captured the best of their sound on one of his own visits to Boundary Bay. This is what we heard emanating from several different owls.
Duck hunters shot into the evening sky on either side of the trail. Not too many ducks were fooled by the weak approximations of Mallard calls from the blinds. The flocks veered high and wide, leaving the muddy fields devoid of birds. I’ve only been to Boundary Bay after hunting season so I didn’t realize how nearby and unsettling the shooting might be. I never get used to the way gunshots rip through me viscerally — exacerbated by knowing what that gunfire means for animals.
As we left the Provincial park, a man, his wife and young son were unpacking their vehicle. He stood up and slung a shotgun over his shoulder as casually as I carry my camera around my neck. Another hunter arrived at his own truck with a bag of decoys and no ducks on his strap. He mentioned the area seemed shot out that day, with late-season ducks getting wise to the tricks of the trade. Listening to the familiar jargon of duck hunting chat, I knew was beyond time for us to go urban — 30 minutes to Vancouver. I just wished the ducks could follow and have an evening’s reprieve at a hotel.
The next day we drove the 75 kilometers to Squamish and Brackendale on the stunning Sea to Sky Highway. Brackendale is known for winter Bald Eagles, and in 2007 held the world record for Bald Eagle count — 1,757 eagles during their annual festival. That count has been dropping, and last year the eagle numbers peaked at 655. The reason for reduced eagle counts is the diminishing number of salmon in the Squamish River estuary, which in turn affects the food chain all the way up — eagles very visibly. Many more eagles are now showing up in November on the Fraser River at Harrison Mills where chum salmon runs have been robust the past few years.
We stopped at Brackendale for the first time last year, excited to photograph in crystal sun and snow — it’s a gorgeous setting. But in early January, most of the salmon-eating eagles had already moved on. A man we met there told us to come back earlier in the eagle season next time, and we’d see plenty of Baldies along the river. So we did. And he was right. I’ve circled in red, some of the eagles dotted around this area of the Squamish River.
It was dark with drizzle, and then bouts of pouring rain. My gear is weather-sealed but I don’t have the courage to test that particular feature. So, Hugh was kind enough to hold an umbrella over my lens as I shot these “proof of life,” low-light frames, most at ISO 2000, 1/500, f/5. In retrospect, I wish I’d removed my teleconverter which takes away a stop of light and isn’t quite as sharp as my naked lens at the far end.
Eagles swooped from the trees, lumbering along the river rocks in their Wookiee pants (as I like to call them). They scooped salmon from the shallows with their talons, struggling to lift the dead chum for more than a foot or two before dropping down to the mud.
Gulls are sometimes eagle prey themselves, especially when salmon are scarce. At salmon spawning locations, however, they seem to have an understanding with their predators … that fish is always preferable. The gulls hover around eagles, grabbing the smaller chunks of fish eagles leave behind.
And always, these winter scenes have a soundtrack: the mystical, magical haunting cries that pierce the wet air and bounce from eagle to eagle, as they call out ideas foreign to me but clearly understood among their brethren.
I shot some short, [very rough] footage without a tripod, in the downpour. But if you haven’t been to one of these Bald Eagle sites, you’ll at least get a sense of the mood and sound. The background noise is footsteps along a trail and an occasional car passing by the river park.