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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Incredible Photo: 55 Bald Eagles in a Single Tree

In the winter, bald eagles often gather at communal roosts where they perch overnight and sometimes during the day when the weather is bad. Communal roosts are usually in large living or dead trees that are relatively sheltered from wind and generally near sources of food. Many roost sites are used year after year and are thought to serve a social purpose for pair bonding and communication among eagles. Because of their importance to eagles, they are protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

A few years ago, our Mountain-Prairie Region shared a photo of an incredible 55 bald eagles in a communal roost. The photo, by photographer Chuck Hilliard, has been shared over 175,000 times and continues to gain interest. We thought we'd ask Chuck a few questions about what it was like to see so many eagles at once. 

55 Bald Eagles in a Single Tree

Chuck Hilliard of Light Of The Moon Photography

Can you describe how you came to find this tree full of eagles?
For many years, I would head up to the Skagit River, in Washington State, to view bald eagles. They gathered there for the salmon run each winter. In 2011, the count really dwindled down, and weather had increased river flows, so that salmon were not reachable for the eagles.

I learned that eagles also gathered on the Nooksack River, which is in a valley about 30 miles north. After mapping out my plans, I spent several weekends locating different areas to access the Nooksack river to find the eagles. These areas were based on non-private land, available parking, and distance to the river. One of the places I found, after accessing the river, was this area with the tree. While there were other eagles around, the tree stood out. Not just for the number of eagles, but also the fact that there were none in the trees directly surrounding it. I have been visiting it each winter since (the shot was from January 2nd, 2012). The largest number of eagles I have seen since was twenty-five to a tree.

25 bald eagles in a single treeChuck Hilliard of Light Of The Moon Photography

2) What shocked you about what the eagles were doing? What does that many birds sound like? What do you think brought them to the tree?
Having watched eagles often, in decent numbers, the sound is the most remarkable part.  Typically, they gather around an area, communicating between each other, in their own family group, and as a whole group. Eventually one will become brave enough to start feeding. This is usually followed by more communicating and then more feeding. They communicate by shrills and screeches, some warbling, normally in a back and forth manner. In the area of this tree, a small branch of the main river flows, and is a prime area for breeding salmon. As the salmon breed and die, they pile up on the shore and in the river. As I watched the eagles for over three hours, it appeared that the location and height of the tree gave the eagles a great view of the area.  What seemed to be happening was the parents and their young would gather in the tree. Then the young would fly down to the river to feed with other young. Sometimes a stray single eagle would fly in and attack the young, to also feed, and some of the parents would attack it and run it off. This happened the whole time. It is my observance that the angle of view, slow and small state of the river tributary, provided a sort of kiddie pool area for the babies to eat and be safe from harassment. While I have seen similar behavior, in one to five family groups, I had never seen it in such a large grouping of families and young. It was quite fascinating to watch and enjoy. I didn't want to venture too close, as I didn't want to disturb or frighten them off.

How long did you photograph them for?
I spent about three hours watching and photographing them. Mostly watching. It is a very beautiful area of the river.

What about this scene will stick with you?
The group family behavior was interesting to watch. As a wildlife photographer, when I watch family groups interact, it is easy to see human like behavior between them. Eagles are no different. But this was the first time I have witnessed a more neighborhood watch mentality. I will never forget the amount of sound and chatter from such a large group. 

More about Chuck Hilliard 
Having been raised around film cameras, and also from an avid camping family, I had experiences with wildlife and landscape beauty from a young age. The love of animals and the beauty of nature still drive me. As I like to say, I see beautiful things, and take photographs of them. My favorite animal to be around, and photograph, is a wild grizzly. I spend every summer in Glacier National Park attempting to do so. Fortunately Glacier is full of many different species of wildlife, as well.  As a young boy, I had up close and personal experiences with wild bears and eagles. More recently, I have also been enjoying shooting the night sky. I continue to grow and evolve my direction and style.

Very nice article Chuck!! I also love taking photos of Mother Nature's work. Thanks for sharing this!!
# Posted By Kathy | 12/8/15 11:58 AM

Chuck, you take amazing pictures. Appreciate your sharing your passion with us.
# Posted By f.f.arlington | 12/8/15 6:00 PM

Such an amazing picture -- along with the many others you have taken of our beautiful National bird!
# Posted By Karen Cruz | 12/8/15 7:29 PM

Thank you for posting this incredible picture. It should be enlarged, framed, enjoyed forever~
# Posted By | 12/8/15 10:04 PM

Incredible pictures. Chuck! Thanks for sharing them with your WA State community!
# Posted By Amy Sauerlender | 12/11/15 11:12 PM

Okay I'll ask. How far away were you when you took your photos that day? And of course , camera, lens, tripod? Awesome shot sir.
# Posted By Ron | 12/14/15 9:37 AM

Thanks for posting this photo, it is awesome seeing that many eagles on one tree. I have a cabin on the Nooksack, and a family tree right across the river from me, although I have never seen that many in one tree, I have counted 23 in my tree and really enjoy watching them and listening to them too. Thanks for sharing!
# Posted By Cindy | 12/15/15 1:37 AM

Awesome photos and the narrative is very infomative.
# Posted By | 12/23/15 12:45 AM

thank you for sharing this breathtaking scene. We are so fortunate to have such beauty. merry christmas
# Posted By Carol edgar | 12/23/15 6:25 PM

Incredible Photo. I'm headed to the Winter Wings Festival in Klamath Falls, OR next month. Looking forward to photographing eagles. http://winterwingsfest.org/
# Posted By Steve Fassio | 1/8/16 6:20 PM

This is a great photo
# Posted By Nuno | 9/27/16 12:45 PM

Beautiful photos! I wish I could see that it person. I would love to hear them.
# Posted By | 12/11/16 9:23 PM

This photo is so cool. Are you selling copies of this photo?. I've taken Eagle pictures before in Wisconsin but I've never came across this many in one place. Great photo good job.
# Posted By Jean Judd | 12/14/16 6:27 AM

Your articke about the Eagles are very interesting, and the picture with the tree filled with a Eagles is AWESOME! Thanks so very much for sharing!
# Posted By Adele D. Myers | 12/14/16 7:46 PM

WOW!! Awesomeness!!! Thank you for sharing this awesome sight! MERRY CHRISTMAS!!
# Posted By Debby | 12/25/16 11:24 AM

I have seen more eagles clustered than this, between 112-175 on several trees just below the lock and dam at Rock Island, IL. It was a very cold winter and the river and most waters were frozen, but the water below the dam was open and the fish coming through were stunned. Unfortunately, I did not have a telephoto lens and could not get close, so my photo is unidentifiable as eagles.
# Posted By Joseph A Balbona | 12/22/18 4:57 PM
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