One of the most common wildlife sightings while kayaking around Orcas Island is the bald eagle. It is a rare day that we do not see at least one eagle on our tours. Often we see them soaring high overhead or perched near the top of a fir tree on shore, and occasionally our encounters are very close and dramatic.
This is a great example of a successful conservation effort, as the population was declining catastrophically in the 1960’s and 70’s. After the banning of DDT use and the federal listing of bald eagles as endangered, their numbers have increased throughout their range and especially in western Washington. From a low of 104 known nesting pairs in the entire state, there are now more than 125 nesting pairs in the San Juan Islands alone. The islands have the highest concentration of nesting balds in the lower 48 states.
With their distinctive white head and tail and a wingspan often greater than seven feet, adult bald eagles are easily recognizable. They often perch, soar, and feed along the shoreline, which is where kayakers see them most. Although we sometimes see them striking the water’s surface for a meal of fresh fish, coastal balds actually prey more on birds — including great blue herons and cormorants. They will also feed on mollusks, crustaceans, mammals, carrion, and human garbage. A gathering of several eagles and vultures on the beach usually indicates where a seal or deer carcass has washed ashore. Bald eagles are not picky eaters.
One of the strangest sights I’ve enjoyed while kayaking in the San Juan Islands has been bald eagles swimming! This happens sometimes when an eagle goes too deep when it strikes the water or grabs a fish too big to carry. Their feathers become waterlogged and they cannot take off from the water. At that point they must use their wings to swim on the surface and head for shore, then spread their wings to dry. I’ve been in the right place at the right time to see this here only twice in 26 years, so don’t expect it. Just always keep your eyes open for surprises!