Why is this eagle smiling?


I was out canoeing in the Bald Eagle Preserve the other day and came upon this bald eagle along the river. It looks like it is smiling. Do bald eagles smile? I think that most biologists would claim that they don’t. Their behaviors are explained in terms of instinct and primordial desires. But I couldn’t help to think that maybe this bald eagle was smiling.

I mean, there has been a lot to smile about here in the Chilkat Valley. When I took the photo, we were at the tail end of almost three weeks of sunny weather in October. This is unheard of, since October is normally one of the rainiest months in Southeast Alaska. In addition, the chum salmon run is particularly strong this year, so there is plentiful food for the eagles. And the eagle numbers are up, too.

Could it be that this eagle was smiling because it was a nice day, there was plenty to eat, and there was lots of company around to share in the joy of the day?

I live with in the heart of the Bald Eagle Preserve with my wife, two daughters and our dog, Lettie, on the shores of Mosquito Lake. The lake began to freeze during the October stretch of clear, cold weather. Trumpeter swans arrived in droves as a stopover on their southern migration. The peak count this year from our deck was 142 swans!

This is quite a sight, and even more, the sound of the swans is something to experience. Large numbers of Canada Geese joined the swans and added to the soundscape. At night, the swans and geese are mostly quiet, with an occasional honk or trumpet blast. The most arresting sound at night is the call of the great horned owl. October was also a great month for Northern Lights viewing this year (see the photo from my previous post).

The lake froze unevenly, and the ice-free sections where the swans land and feed diminished. Soon many swans left. Those that remained were squeezed into an ever-decreasing ice-freeze zone. Some swans would come in to land, and, unable to find room in the open water, decided to land right on the ice. It is a tribute to the grace of the swan that they are able to maintain their dignity as they slide along the ice, flapping their wings to slow themselves down.

Just when the lake was about to freeze over completely, the stretch of cold weather ended with a dump of twelve inches of snow. The temperatures continued to climb into the 40s, the snow melted and the rains came back with a vengeance. We got our October weather in November! Right now, the Chilkat River is extremely high, almost to flood stage. Day after cloudy day has brought even more rain, yet eagle numbers are still strong. Mosquito Lake has thawed out completely. A few swans remain on the lake, and yesterday they were joined by a large group of mergansers.

Mergansers are fish-eating ducks, with a serrated bill that helps them catch fish as they dive. It is their diet that has kept them safe from the duck hunters. I talked with my friend, Derek, about them this morning. He told me he loves to eat fish, and he loves to hunt ducks, but he is careful not to shoot mergansers when he goes out duck hunting. He has no interest in eating a duck that tastes like fish!

The Bald Eagle Festival starts tomorrow; over 150 visitors from around the world have descended upon Haines eager to experience the gathering of bald eagles. I hope that visitors get what they are after…. whether it is to capture some memorable images of bald eagles with their cameras, or to simply stand by the river in awe and soak up the tremendous natural beauty. I hope that they also gain an appreciation and understanding of the fragility and uniqueness of the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. And if they’re lucky, I hope they catch a glimpse of a smiling bald eagle…..