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Bald eagles roost in B.C. town

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BRACKENDALE, British Columbia - Few natural sights are as impressive as an
eagle targeting a fish that's grasped quickly by the bird's talons upon
swooping down. Splashing into the river to draw its catch, this
life-and-death struggle of predator versus prey lasts only seconds.
Fortunately for bird-watchers, this inspiring spectacle repeats itself
frequently in an accessible location. Southwestern British Columbia lays
claim as one of the world's most prolific habitats for the bald eagle
because of its spectacular topography.

Located within an hour's drive north of Vancouver, the Squamish Valley
winds its way along the banks of the Howe Sound nestled within the shadows
of the Coast Mountains. The breathtaking view of snowcapped peaks coupled
with an island-dotted inlet makes, without hyperbole, visitors gasp in awe.

Such a reaction is almost expected, said the Chief of the Squamish First
Nation. Floyd Joseph Siam explained the traditional territory of his people
has an aura around it that requires respect and is one of the reasons why
the eagles, along with other larger animals, call this area home.

"The Squamish territory is a very powerful place and it's a center of life.
Spiritually, physically, mentally, all those strengths had to be worked on
before entering the valley," said Joseph.

Now travelers and day tourists have another reason to venture north of
British Columbia's largest city and that's to spot the eagles. Thousands
are nestled within the security of the trees along the valley's streams and
among its mountainsides as the annual pilgrimage of the bald eagle has put
Brackendale on the global map of ornithology.

Since 1986, the first Sunday of the year has been dedicated to an official
tally of these birds and last January 1,709 were spotted in the region.
Coordinating the town's Winter Eagle Festival and Count is Thor Froslev,
owner of the Brackendale Art Gallery.

Stepping into his shop, the collection of eagle photos, sculptures and
paraphernalia is striking, almost overwhelming, in paying homage to this
winged creature. Regarded as the local expert on the bird, Froslev
maintains an excitement when describing why the eagle has chosen
Brackendale as a seasonal roost.

Starting in November, more than 300,000 chum salmon spawn and die within
the local river system and that's the prime reason for the birds' migration
to the valley as Froslev points out the bald eagle will travel to where the
food is easiest to obtain. However, there are more mitigating environmental
circumstances which force the bird to this locale.

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"The herring is less and less so it's harder for them to get food period
because their habitat is being taken over by other forces," Froslev said
about the impact of commercial activity and a sprawling human population in
the Pacific Northwest.

Brackendale holds the world record with 3,769 bald eagles in 1994 that
eclipsed a previous mark set in Haines, Alaska (near the tribal land of the
Tlingit). Regarding the 2004 number being less than 50 percent of the high
mark, Froslev said it shouldn't be a concern. Actually, about half of those
eagles spotted were juveniles, a ratio that's particularly encouraging.

"Our take on that count is that young eagles were along the river's edge
and the adults were further into the trees and old growth forests," Froslev
said, stating most often there are two adults to every one infant. "If
there were 850 [mature eagles] and 850 [juveniles], there were likely
another 850 [adults] that were here but they were better camouflaged."

Joseph said it's the salmon which play the important role in attracting the
eagle to come in the first place. It's the fish's very existence that
represents life for many animals and, along with the eagle, has a strong
presence in Squamish folklore.

For environmentalists such as Froslev, the bald eagle presents a "window"
from which to study. Though the numbers fluctuate on an annual basis, they
haven't been so dramatically different over the past decade to warrant
concern and that pleases Froslev.

"The eagle is like a flagship and if there's a stable population, something
is working," he noted, pointing out that animals at the top of the food
chain reproduce at fewer numbers and are most likely to be affected by
changes in their habitat and food source. "The salmon need clean water and
that means no silting from logging and sewage."

Because of the ability of the Squamish Valley to nurture the bald eagle,
Froslev was the driving force behind the effort to create a 1,100-acre
reserve for the bird in 1996. While not an official park, there is no
economic activity nor residences in an area that's on an estuary beside the
Squamish River.

While land claims are still an issue in the area, he respects how the bald
eagle represents hope and how an animal can forge ties between his people
and outsiders.