JUNEAU, Alaska - Juneau's local eagle population seems to have boomed this year as locals report seeing more activity than normal at some of the hot fishing spots around town.
Take the dock near Douglas Island Pink and Chum, Inc., for example. Eagles have been seen in large numbers perched on pilings and wrestling for already dead salmon at low tide.
Stephen Lewis, a wildlife biologist who works in the Juneau Raptor Management Office for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said he too noticed the large numbers of eagles perched near DIPAC.
The reason for their arrival, he said, is simple: to eat.
But the strong numbers of eagles at the hatchery on Channel Drive does not necessarily mean good things for eagle populations this year.
Lewis said it's an indicator that many of this year's nests have failed.
The cause? Poor weather and a cold, wet spring and summer.
"It's been just such a tough year," Lewis said. "Birds are probably pretty hungry, in the general sense. It's hard on all sorts of things when you have these really wet spring and/or summers - it's especially hard on raptors."
When nests fail, large raptors such as eagles will stop holding their nesting territory as aggressively, he said.
"So, they'll start moving around, especially if they cannot find food there. Then, they end up showing up at places like local salmon streams. Luckily, those fish runs won't be affected as much by harsh weather," Lewis said. "The fish will come in. That's good for eagles."
Cold and wet seasons make life hard for nesting eagles, He said, because the birds are forced to spend more time caring for themselves. They are focused on staying warm and finding food to keep body temperatures up, he said.
"Especially early on, birds will be covering eggs and covering young," he said. "So that requires a lot of food being brought to the female by the male. She's brooding and not able to forage. But if he's not bringing enough, then she'll leave to forage and that causes the nest to fail. It just takes a lot more effort on their part because they're having to make up for the lack of warm and sunny days."
During a "good" year, Lewis said, breeding adult eagles would still be around the nest caring for and bringing food to the young, as well as defending the nest.
"They're a little more tied into that space," he said. "But if the nest fails, then they aren't necessarily tied there any more."
Of course, not all the birds seen close to town are breeding adults. Lewis said this is the time of year eagles will start wandering toward food sources. But this year, given the recent bouts of foul weather we've had, Lewis said, that "wandering" will become even more prevalent as eagles look for easy food sources.
There's one nest that failed roughly a week ago near Point Bridget State Park. It was there Michelle Brown and her family stumbled upon a baby eagle that had left the nest nearly two months sooner than expected.
Brown said the parents were in the trees above the baby eagle screeching and carrying on.
"From the mess on the ground," Brown said, "it looked like the parents had been caring for it the best they could on the ground, but a high tide or predator would have been the end for the little guy."
Lewis said the behavior by the parent eagles indicates the little eagle was likely the only nestling.
"That makes it seem like it was the only nestling there because, normally, if there's one still there, the parents will just keep feeding it," he said. "It could be that something happened to the nest, or it could have just fallen out."
After realizing the best chance for the chick's survival would be slim, Brown, her son Nathan "Beamer" Harris and his friend Steve Waldner, contacted volunteers at the Juneau Raptor Center. The JRC told the group that Scott Tiernan, a local eagle expert, should be contacted t o evaluate the bird and arrange for its transportation to the Alaska Raptor Center, in Sitka. Tiernan told Brown the baby was quite young - maybe only five weeks old - and that it should have stayed in the nest until mid-August.
On Monday, the baby eagle was transported to the ARC. Brown received an update Wednesday stating, "the baby eagle is doing just fine. The x-rays we took showed no broken bones and his weight is fine. We have him in our Bald Eagle Flight Training Center with another baby that we picked up here in Sitka, so he has company."
In this situation, Lewis said the outlook for the young eagle is good.
"(The employees at the center) will do their best to feed it so it's not imprinted," he said. "They only keep birds if they are really injured. With enough food and care, they'll be able to set it on its own."
And there's hope, too, for eagles this year in Alaska, Lewis said. Due to large population numbers of bald eagles in the state, a down year won't have a huge impact on the success of the species.
"Because I think we're at a saturation level. All the breeding area is taken up. An adult eagle may have to deal with several years of vying for breeding territory before they get one, so there's this surplus of birds to fill in. In other words, we have more eagles in regions of Alaska then there are nesting sites."
Nest sites, he said, are formed when there are enough large trees and enough food surpluses to support groups of mating eagle pairs.
"For them, reproduction is something they try every year, but it's not something they succeed at every year because they have a long life with which to 'replace' their numbers."