Thursday, January 7, 2016

Eagles and Salmon at McLane Creek

Text and photos by Nancy Partlow©

The annual gatherings of bald eagles on the Skagit River in the North Cascades are quite famous, but I never dreamed we had anything similar to that here in south Puget Sound. I was excited to learn that every late fall and early winter, bald eagles converge in numbers near the mouth of McLane Creek to feast on the bodies of dead and dying spawned-out salmon.

After heavy rains, bald eagles splay their wings to dry their feathers
at a foggy McLane Creek

According to the Draft McLane Creek Basin Water Resource Protection Study, McLane Creek Basin is comprised of several streams: 

McLane Creek Basin…is located in northwestern Thurston County, a little more than five miles west of the city of Olympia. It encompasses more than 7,000 acres that drain into McLane Creek and into Eld Inlet, and is bounded on its northeastern side by State Route 101, and on its northwestern side by the steep terrain of the Black Hills. The basin contains six major tributaries to McLane Creek, including Beatty Creek, Cedar Flats Creek, Perkins Creek, and Swift Creek. The area is one of the most ecologically intact basins within Thurston County that discharges to Puget Sound.
Fish species of the basin include cutthroat trout, winter steelhead, coho and fall Chinook salmon. But it is the large numbers of returning chum salmon that attract bald eagles from miles around.  An article from a Thurston County Stream Team newsletter describes the chum runs in the basin thus: 

At the beginning of the winter rains, adult chum salmon return to the icy waters to reproduce and then die. The chum salmon spawn anywhere from the lower mouth of McLane Creek up past the protected area of the McLane Creek Nature Trail. They also spawn in tributaries to McLane Creek: Swift, Cedar Flats and Perkins Creeks. WDFW staff do fish surveys during the spawning season to count the number of salmon along different reaches of the creeks. For the past ten years, an estimated 6 to 10,000 chum have returned to McLane Creek. Swift Creek had an estimated 12 to 25,000 and Perkins Creek, 700 to 3,000.

That’s a lot of fish!

I have visited this area during the fall salmon run for the last four seasons.  Two years ago, I watched more than 30 chum spawning right before my eyes in Swift Creek. 

Chum salmon spawning in Swift Creek

Yet it is dead fish that the carrion-loving eagles really go for, and there are plenty of those, too.

Dead salmon at McLane Creek

Upon entering the area, the pungent smell of decomposing salmon permeates the nostrils. The shrill, piercing cries of eagles and gulls penetrate the air.  Depending on what the tide is doing, the trees next to the McLane estuary may be festooned with many bald eagles. 
Fifteen bald eagles perch in a tree above McLane Creek
The fact that such normally-territorial birds tolerate each other’s presence is testament to the rich and abundant food resource. 

I asked Janet why there appear to be so many more juveniles than adult bald eagles at McLane Creek.  She pointed out that it takes four to five years for a bald eagle to attain adult plumage, so maybe four out of every five eagles would naturally be youngsters anyway. She also suggested that it might be easier for juvies to scavenge dead salmon than to catch live prey, which is a learned skill. It also could be that most adult eagles are currently defending their territories, since breeding season has already started for them. 

These last two theories made some sense to me.  I recently caught sight of an adult bald eagle at Capitol Lake.  It was eating a bird that it had caught (probably some kind of duck or gull). I wondered why it wasn’t out at the salmon streams getting fat on chum.  Perhaps this was one of a mated pair that annually nests above the Deschutes estuary, hunting in its home territory. 
Whatever the reason, I know that mature bald eagles nest near the McLane Creek estuary too, and every year I see at least one pair together.   

It’s thrilling to watch them mirror each other’s flight and occasionally, even briefly lock talons.
Views of eagles along this stretch of McLane Creek are mostly from far across large farm fields, which is actually a good thing, so that the birds aren’t disturbed.  The tall firs, cottonwoods and alders next to Delphi Road may afford closer views.
When I was a child growing up in Olympia, seeing a bald eagle was an exceedingly rare occurrence.  That is why I still experience a major thrill whenever I catch sight of one.  I am so glad that bald eagle numbers have rebounded to a point where we can again experience one of nature’s great spectacles right here in Thurston County.

Other resources:

Draft: McLane Creek Basin Resources Protection Study

Stream Team article on chum salmon at McLane Creek


Bald eagles in tree at McLane Creek
Bald eagle courtship behavior at McLane Creek
Gulls and eagles soar over McLane Creek
Bald eagle eating a bird at Capitol Lake

1 comment:

  1. For several years, the City of Olympia sponsored a kayak trip each December that took off from Allison Springs and included Mud Bay and the mouth of McLane Creek. We saw dozens of eagles feasting on chum. Amazing! Incidentally, seeing the fecundity and variety of species present in the McLane Creek estuary is one reason I strongly support a restored Deschutes estuary in downtown Olympia.