The Bald Eagles of Brackendale and a Summer Tanager

On Saturday I went to Brackendale and went on a Bald Eagle Viewing Float Tour. Brackendale is famously called "The Eagle Capital of the World." In 1994 it did hold the world-record count of 3,769 eagles. However, due to the lack of returning Salmon, the Eagle numbers have decreased. This is why it is vital to conserve our natural resource of Salmon. Salmon affects so many animals in the food chain from Orcas to Bears and Eagles. It is even needed as fertilizer for the trees to grow in the forest.

I went on this raft tour with the Squamish Rafting Company. The whole trip was beautiful from beginning to end. We started off in the town of Squamish at the office on 2nd Ave and then we were chauffeured in a van to the base camp. The base camp was "Mountain Fun Base Camp", a charming little place where people can stay in cabins or campsites. The lodge is located on the confluence of the Cheakamus and Cheekye Rivers. When we got there we met the guide named Ash. He had started a fire inside the tent and offered us hot chocolate. It was really nice and cozy. He then gave us life jackets, gortex rain pants and jacket, boots and then we were off. We drove near to Brackendale to launch our raft on the Cheakamus River. There were 5 of us on the tour from across Canada and we were excited to get going in this gorgeous weather.

After we piled into the boat we joined the Squamish River. We enjoyed stunning views of the Squamish Valley. Ash started to tell us about Bald Eagles and gave lots of great and accurate information about their biology and how to age them. He even told a fun fact that female Bald Eagles have longer talons than the males, which very few knew on the boat. The first birds we saw were Common Mergansers and Buffleheads. There were a few Common Goldeneyes as well. All of a sudden we started to notice many Bald Eagles sitting in the trees along the river bank. Ash made sure to angle the boat so that everyone could get good pictures of the eagles in the right light. This was especially important when we came across a beautiful adult that was eating fish on a sandbar.

It was just awe inspiring to be beside such a gorgeous eagle. We sometimes take them for granted because we see them so much around our area. However, they are one of the most stunning birds on this planet and we really never should forget that. It is an incredible success story how they have come back from the brink of extirpation due to the banning of DDT. The low angle of the raft and the calm water and great light made for a nice day of photography. The bird below is in his 5th year and almost in full adult plumage. Note the fully white tail but the small about of brown flecking in the feathers of the face.

Adult Bald Eagle on Chum Salmon - Photo: Melissa Hafting

The views of the trees, mountains and river were just so serene.  There was a lot of bird life along the banks and on the water, in addition to the eagles. Many Gulls were bathing, the weather was fantastic and the scenery spectacular. It was nice to just float there and soak it all in.

It is very important that I acknowledge that the land I was blessed to bird on is the traditional and unceded territory of the Squamish First Nations.

Moss covered trees lined the river - Photo: Melissa Hafting

The tranquil Squamish River flanked by spectacular mountains - Photo: Melissa Hafting

The eagle numbers were still relatively low but the numbers should only increase and peak in January. The eagles are here now to breed and are feeding mostly on spawning Chum Salmon. They prefer to scavenge (less work) and tend to eat the fish once they have spawned out.

Bald Eagle in flight showing off that huge wingspan - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Bald Eagle Perched in a tree above the Squamish River - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Bald Eagle perched above the raft in Brackendale - Photos: Melissa Hafting

By the way on the end of Depot Rd you can go and view all the rotting salmon being eaten by Gulls and Bald Eagles, it's pretty cool if you don't mind the smell.

Bald Eagle and Gulls feeding on rotting Chum Salmon at Depot Rd - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Anyways, getting back to the boat ride... As we continued down the Squamish River and neared the confluence with the Mamquam River; we saw 2 American Dippers (I love these aquatic songbirds), 3 Belted Kingfishers chasing each other and Common Redpolls. The Redpolls flew across and landed in the trees to feed, in this finch irruption year. There was also a constant stream of Common Mergansers.

A female Common Merganser coasts alongside our raft  - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Alert on rocks these pretty Female Common Mergansers are quite skittish - Photos: Melissa Hafting

We also had at least 5 Harbour Seals. The Harbour Seals travel so far up the fresh water river, as they are also following the salmon. Harbour Seals actually regularly travel up rivers and can survive quite well in freshwater.

Harbour Seal traveling up the Squamish River in search of salmon - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Our group traveling in the raft on the serene Squamish  river - Photos: Squamish Rafting Company

After an hour on the boat in gorgeous calm weather, we disembarked and walked up the bank to the van. It's a small world because I met a local Squamish birder named Patrick, who is a friend of my friend Chris Dale. I said "goodbye" and as we got into the van and headed back to the base camp we all talked about what a nice day we had.

Back at base camp, we enjoyed a delicious bowl of chili which came with cheese and sour cream and sausage. It was really fantastic. We also could have hot chocolate or a can of pop and a roll of bread. We were in the cozy tent with Christmas decor, freshly made wood tables and a wood burning fireplace. It was really a beautiful way to end our special day. It definitely was the trip where I got my best Bald Eagle shots yet. I would love to come back next year but plan the trip in January when the eagles are more abundant and there is some pretty snow on the ground.

Brackendale is a beautiful place and only a short drive from Vancouver or Whistler. The other guests on our tour who were from Whistler and Ottawa were great company and we shared many wildlife stories about various encounters we had around the world from Belugas and Manatees to Blue-footed Boobies and Bald Eagles!

I highly recommend this tour for anyone who loves Eagles and is physically able to lift a heavy boat for short distances and are able to get into a low boat. I would say this trip is definitely not for those with mobility issues. For those with mobility issues it is best to watch the eagles from the Brackendale Eagles Provincial Park Dyke (along Government Rd) beside the Watershed Grille where there is a wheelchair ramp and full views of the Eagles in the trees and sandbars. The map to the location can be found HERE. There are also volunteers with scopes to watch the eagles. Also one can drive down to view the eagles on Depot Rd. As I said above and posted a photo from this location, it is certainly worth it as well.

To learn more about the 2018 Brackendale Bald Eagle Festival that begins Jan 1 and ends on Jan 29th, click HERE.

Getting back to the rafting trip.... All in all this was a great day with great people. At the end of the trip the chauffeur who was also a professional photographer took beautiful photos of us on our adventure on the Squamish River. We were all sent a download link and these photos are free for us to keep! I thought that was really cool because most people charge you for a photo that you get on their adventure. This happened to me when I went White Water River Rafting in AB for a Bachelorette Party and was charged 25$ for the group photo. I have included some photos in this blog that the Squamish Rafting Company took of us (they are watermarked with their logo). Thanks again to the Squamish Rafting Company for a great tour.

This Eagle Viewing tour is 109$ per adult and is offered daily from November until February with the Squamish Rafting Company. The peak times to view the eagles are January in Brackendale. If you are able, you should go. You can get more info on the tour and book tickets directly HERE.

It was a blessing to bird in the traditional territory of the Squamish Nation.I would have finished the day in the Squamish Estuary and I highly recommend a visit there. It is a very peaceful and beautiful birding spot that has turned up quite a few rarities. Locals Chris Dale and Chris Murrell do very well there. However, I never made it because a rare Summer Tanager had been found that day in Vancouver. The Tanager was only the 6th record for BC and the 1st for Metro Vancouver. I did eventually end up seeing the Summer Tanager and it was the 262nd bird that I have seen in Metro Vancouver this year and the 416th bird species I have seen in BC. The media has been contacting me at the BC Rare Bird Alert all day about this Summer Tanager. He is a real celebrity. You can view a interview I did with the Canadian Press HERE.

One extreme to the other...a Bald Eagle and a Summer Tanager. One Common and One Rare but both unique in their beauty and worth.

Imm. Male Summer Tanager in Vancouver - Photo: Melissa Hafting


  1. That was a great day you had! So nice when everything falls together like that! Gorgeous shots! Bald eagles are truly stunning!!
    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you so much Viktor! See you tm at the Xmas bird count for kids!

  2. Wow that sounds like a fantastic trip! Thanks for such a wonderful report, I look forward to going on that trip myself one day!


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