Visitors flock to The Dalles Lock and Dam to see our nation’s symbol in action

By Erica Jensen, Public Affairs Office

Every winter bald eagles stage themselves in trees at Westrick Park waiting for a meal of American Shad to float by in the waters of the Columbia River.  (Photo by Fritz Bentz)

Every winter bald eagles stage themselves in trees at Westrick Park waiting for a meal of American Shad to float by in the waters of the Columbia River. (Photo by Fritz Bentz)

Nestled between Oregon and Washington is the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, home to year-round resident bald eagles and temporary host to hundreds more that winter there – flying south as soon as northern rivers and lakes freeze over and food sources become scarce.

Westrick Park at The Dalles Lock and Dam has become a prime winter roosting habitat for bald eagles in recent years.  The park, closed to the public several years ago due to increased security restrictions and declining budgets, has now become a secluded, quiet location whose proximity to the river makes it a perfect wintering site for bald eagles and other migratory birds.

“The mighty Columbia River is one of the largest rivers in North America and provides an excellent food source for our winter guests,” said Amber Tilton, park ranger at The Dalles Lock and Dam.  “Each winter we see an influx of eagles taking advantage of the open water to hunt for fish and waterfowl.”

As more and more of the raptors arrived, the natural resource staff at The Dalles Dam also noticed an increase in visitors and, as a result, developed its annual Eagle Watch four years ago.

The Eagle Watch is held at The Dalles Dam Visitor Center, across from Westrick Park where the eagles roost. “The location allows everyone to enjoy watching these amazing birds while still keeping a respectful distance so as not to disturb them,” Tilton said.

During this year’s Eagle Watch, held in January, more than 340 people braved the threat of a winter storm to “see the eagles and other raptors and learn some new things” as James Bramer of Hood River, Ore., commented during his visit.

The weather in The Dalles held that day, with the sunshine breaking through the rain and wind, making it easier for visitors to view the birds through powerful spotting scopes and binoculars.  Local residents and out-of-towners from as far away as Pendleton, Wasco, and Yamhill, Ore., who were kept warm with a blazing bonfire and hot cocoa, seemed to enjoy the Eagle Watch activities at the visitor center.

Children enjoyed dressing up in the bald eagle costume at The Dalles Lock and Dam Eagle Watch on January 11 and 12. Park rangers used the costume to teach visitors about the unique features of raptors. (Photo by Amber Tilton, The Dalles Lock and Dam)

Children enjoyed dressing up in the bald eagle costume at The Dalles Lock and Dam Eagle Watch on January 11 and 12. Park rangers used the costume to teach visitors about the unique features of raptors. (Corps of Engineers photo)

In addition to eagle watching, volunteers taught children about bald eagle anatomy by dressing them up in an eagle costume.  A touch table was also available, complete with replicas of a bald eagle, osprey and turkey vulture skull and an osprey and eagle egg.  An educational film about the bald eagle’s recovery, a raptor display, and handouts provided “something for everyone” as one anonymous commenter said in the visitor log book.

“Thanks to the great partnership we have with the U.S. Forest Service, Rowena Wildlife Clinic and The Dalles Discovery Center, we can provide outdoor wildlife viewing and live raptor education during the event,”  said Tilton.  “They were able to arrange for special guest appearances by an American kestrel and a great horned owl – and what better way can we promote environmental stewardship to our visitors than by helping them to experience nature first hand?”

It seems spectator Ron Fransen from Dallesport, Ore., would agree, “I came to see the eagles in their natural habitat and the ‘live birds of prey’ show, but I was also most impressed by the knowledgeable staff and volunteers who came together to put on this Eagle Watch for the public to come and watch our Nation’s symbol, the American bald eagle in action.”