Winter Birds Combat Winter Blues


Tools of the Trade

What natural wonders could possibly await on a cold, foggy winter morning?  Who in their right mind would want to go outside in these conditions?

If you do brave the elements at this time of year, it may seem at first as if no birds are present.  Instead of birds you might hear sounds ranging from electronic car beeps to the droning of leaf blowers.  But wait:  settle in, sip your coffee, take a deep breath.  Good things happen to those who wait.  Waiting and being quiet are not things we are taught in our noisy, busy-body culture but can be therapeutic.

This morning when I ventured out, a Pileated Woodpecker flapped through the mist and perched on a nearby utility pole, its red crest a beacon in the fog.  Due to the proximity of our yard to a larger forested area with standing snags, we see these majestic birds often.


Pileated Woodpecker in the fog

Then came a mixed flock of other species:  Dark-eyed Juncos, Pine Siskins, Black-capped Chickadees, House Finches accompanied by a few Spotted Towhees and Song Sparrows.  Each species has its own way of feeding.  The Towhees rake and the Chickadees take one seed at a time from a feeder and fly off to crack the shell and eat it on a nearby tree branch.  The mixed flock feeds and vocalizes together, giving warning when a predator like a Cooper’s Hawk, Merlin or house cat comes by.


Song Sparrow emerges from brush



As I tried to photograph them, two Anna’s Hummingbirds buzzed my left ear.  They landed in a small tree and glared at one-another only a foot apart.  Then they rocketed off together chattering in urgent squeaky tones before I could snap a shot.  So I took one perched on a feeder instead.


Female Anna’s Hummingbird commands feeder

In a 20-minute span, 15 species of birds graced our yard with their colors, athleticism, vocal variety and unending curiosity.  They are here because we and others before us left ample habitat for them.  Having bird feeders and a bird bath also helped “chum them in.”

During this quiet time, the world’s problems fade.  Positive thoughts and ideas come to the forefront.  Inspiration prevails, cynicism gains no traction. It is true that simple pleasures like these are the best.  They are available to all of us.  No apps necessary; just your five senses, warm clothes, a warm drink, and a pair of binoculars.

My List:

Yard, King, Washington, US
Dec 4, 2017 8:00 AM – 8:20b AM
Protocol: Area
0.01 ac
Comments:     Foggy, calm – 38 degrees
15 speciesAnna’s Hummingbird  3
Northern Flicker  2
Pileated Woodpecker  1
American Crow  6
Black-capped Chickadee  4
Chestnut-backed Chickadee  1


Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Red-breasted Nuthatch  1
American Robin  1
European Starling  1
Yellow-rumped Warbler  1
Dark-eyed Junco  14
Song Sparrow  1
Spotted Towhee  2
House Finch  2
Pine Siskin  4

Much More Than ‘Just Another Pretty Place’


Lake Whatcom

Tucked away in the northwest corner of Washington state lies beautiful, glacially-carved Lake Whatcom. The name derives from the Lummi Indian word for loud water – perhaps a reference to Whatcom Falls near the southwest outlet of the lake.  It is a pretty lake, but its beauty is definitely not skin deep.  The reasons for safeguarding natural assets like this lake go far beyond aesthetics.  They include our health, economy, recreation and our very survival.

Lake Whatcom WATERSHED SIGN.Approaching the lake from the southwest, I noticed an “entering Lake Whatcom watershed” road sign – an encouraging nod to stewardship. Continuing north and east, I arrived at Lake Whatcom Park.

P1120197As I began hiking the Hertz trail, on the former the Bellingham and Eastern railroad right-of-way along the lake’s north shore, I was hit by an intoxicating waft of fresh air.  The aroma was a delicious blend emanating from the lake water, cedar boughs, and ripe wild berries.  I inhaled deeply, realizing that this kind of air cannot be found everywhere. Then I walked on through the Douglas Fir/Western Hemlock/Western Red Cedar forest with Big-leaf and Vine Maples showing fall colors.


American Dipper

A Red-breasted Sapsucker tapped softly, a Pacific Wren chattered in short staccato bursts.  A Douglas Squirrel sounded its alarm call, and an American Dipper plied the shoreline, occasionally hopping up on a rock to survey the watery scene. Then a Peregrine Falcon flew across the lake clutching its prey, periodically shrieking as it returned to its perch atop a Douglas Fir.


Peregrine Falcon

All of these wildlife encounters made me appreciate those who successfully protected large swaths of land on both shores of the lake.  A primary driver for these collective efforts is that the lake provides drinking water for more than 100,000 residents of Whatcom County, including 85,000 who live nearby in Bellingham.

This ten-mile long, one-mile wide lake, with depths up to 350 feet, has 13 species of fish including Kokanee Salmon and Coastal Cutthroat Trout.  People boat, swim and fish in its waters, and they bike and hike along its shores.  It is a recreational mecca for the same people who drink its water.

P1120169Lake Whatcom is not without its problems.  Invasive species such as Zebra Mussel, Asian Carp and Eurasian Water Millfoil have found their way into its waters.  And the water has had pollution problems leading to the state Department of Ecology declaring in 1998 that the lake had too much phosphorus and fecal bacteria and needed to reduce the levels of both of these contaminants.

P1120204In response, the City of Bellingham and Whatcom County took action to address the pollution issues. Among the measures they adopted were storm water improvement projects, removal of some pavement and lawns, and the addition of rain gardens and native landscaping to filter storm water.

P1120162Through the acquisition of State Forest Lands and park lands, Whatcom County has protected more than 9,000 acres of Lake Whatcom’s watershed.  As the County Parks and Recreation Department notes “These large tracts of undeveloped land currently provide valuable wildlife habitat and watershed protection.  They can also provide unique non-motorized recreation opportunities minutes from the majority of Whatcom County residents.”

P1120125Another major benefit of protecting the watershed is that it facilitates increased physical activity and time spent outdoors in a beautiful natural setting.  This in turn improves our physical and mental health.  Evidence of this was all around me on the two lovely mornings I recently spent at Lake Whatcom Park.  Only one out of the 60 people I encountered did not smile, say hello and/or ask if I had seen any interesting birds or wildlife (I carry binoculars and a camera).  The one outlier was a young guy with head phones on running for exercise at a brisk pace.  He too chose this place to recreate, perhaps for its beauty.

BE Active Bicycling

Photo from Bellingham City website

By saving nature, we are really saving ourselves and our quality of life.  In the words of Gaylord Nelson, late Wisconsin Governor, Senator and co-founder of Earth Day: “The challenges to all societies in all countries of the world is to forge an environmentally, economically sustainable society. The economy is –totally dependent on the resource base, and the way I would put it is the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment.”

Record Numbers Visit National Parks, So Why Cut Parks Funding?


This American Dipper and tourists toughed out early Yellowstone snow storms last week

On a tour I led recently in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, it alternately snowed and rained for five consecutive days.  Despite the inclement weather, Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks were busy, hotels and restaurants were full, and the gateway city of Jackson, Wyoming had traffic jams.  Busloads of tourists from the U.S. and other countries descended upon the parks. There were long lines at restaurants, bathrooms (National Parks need more of these), and at park entrances.  Like us, these tourists came to experience the exquisite beauty, wildlife, geology and fall colors in these iconic Parks.


Our experience was indicative of the upward trend in national park visitation.  Last year (2016) was a record-breaking year for visiting national parks.  A total of 330 million people visited them, a 7 percent increase from the previous year.  Visitation records were broken in many national parks this year, including these new highs:

  • Smoky Mountain NP – 11 million
  • Grand Canyon NP – 6 million
  • Yosemite NP – 5 million
  • Yellowstone NP – 4.2 million

While Americans are voting with their hearts and their feet in support of our national park system, AKA “America’s Best Idea”, the current administration wants to cut funding for national parks by 12%.  Why?p1060442

National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” – Wallace Stegner, author

BB17 - Woody and Lori at the big bend in the Rio Greande SKPAIMG_7049

Build a wall through Big Bend National Park?What a terrible idea!  (Rio Grande River and Mexico on the other side behind Lori and me)

There is no rational explanation for this funding cut.  Demand for National Parks is at a historic high. The economy is strong, the stock market is robust, unemployment is down.  It is all about politics and priorities.  This administration would rather build a wall in front of Mexico, and right through Big Bend National Park, than it would steward what truly makes America great – it’s national parks

According to the National Parks Conservation Association, the proposed reduced budget would lead to the loss of 1,242 FTE staff, $30 million in cuts to deferred maintenance projects of which there are a total of $11 billion in pending projects, closed facilities including campgrounds, and reduced services.  It makes absolutely no sense to do this at a time when park visitation is growing.  We should be doing the exact opposite.

Here is what John Gardner, Director of Budget and Appropriations for National Parks Conservation Association said about the proposed cuts:

“The Administration’s proposed budget is a non-starter for our national parks, our environment, and our cultural heritage, and should be dead on arrival in Congress. Agencies like the National Park Service and EPA cannot take care of our treasured landscapes and historical landmarks with further cuts to what are already shoestring budgets.”

There is a massive disconnect here between what Americans cherish, and what those in power are promoting.  Democracy is not at play here; instead, the power of resource extraction industries is.

Ryan Zinke, the current head of Department of Interior fancies himself a Teddy Roosevelt conservationist.  He therefore should be proposing a budget that supports conservation of the public lands he manages.  Instead, he has been trying to undo the legacy of Teddy Roosevelt, the father of our public lands.

Zinke is a fox guarding the hen house and a shill for the oil and gas industry.  He and his cronies want to exploit public lands for short-term profits, plain and simple.  Currently, he is presiding over his agencies’ proposed budget cuts and has recommended shrinking at least four national monuments to make more lands available to  oil, gas, mineral extraction, grazing and logging.  This, in spite of the fact that 98% of public comments received on his national monument review process favored their expansion and preservation.

P1100495 (2)

Olympic National Park — formerly a national monument

National Parks often start as national monuments.  Olympic National Park was first a national monument created by Teddy Roosevelt before it eventually became a national park formalized by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Just as  Zinke mismanages public lands, he also mismanages public funds. On June 6th, he and his staffers flew a chartered plane from Las Vegas to Kalispell, Montana near Zinke’s home in Whitefish, Montana. This flight cost U.S. taxpayers $12,735.   Zinke should pay this amount in a fine earmarked to Yellowstone Park toward the installation of one public bathroom at Artist Point overlooking the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.  Then he will have done at least one good thing for our national park system.


Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone – a gorgeous place with too few  restrooms

Far beyond this, he needs to steward responsibly the magnificent system of public lands that we inherited from Teddy Roosevelt, a republican, and others after him.  Your job, Secretary Zinke, is to tend, not give away the farm.  Put your money where your mouth is.  Fund our beloved national parks!  Teddy’s ghost is watching you.


Grand Teton National Park at Oxbow Bend of the Snake River

“Here is your country.  Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children.  Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.

-Theodore Roosevelt

Keep Public Lands Public

Public Lands Public Image

Why does the current Administration want to reduce public lands at a time when Americans are flocking to them in record numbers?

The love of public lands is particularly strong in the west where 93 percent of Western voters have visited national parks, national forests, or other public lands within the last year.  “The overwhelming majority of Westerners view the national forests and other public lands they use as American places that are a shared inheritance and a shared responsibility. Rather than supporting land transfer proposals, voters say their top priorities are to ensure public lands are protected for future generations and that the rangers and land managers have the resources they need to do their jobs.” — Dave Metz, president FM3

Americans continue to show their love for our public lands by flocking to national parks in record numbers.  According to a recent AP article “Overall more than 330 million people visited U.S. national parks in 2016, a record.” – Zion National Park alone had 4.3 million; Yellowstone had 4.1 million visitors and Great Smoky National Park had a whopping 11.3 million visitors, also a record.

Further, the Center for Western Priorities analyzed a random sample of the 654,197 public comments posted as of Monday morning, July 24, 2017 regarding the proposed rollback of national monuments. A huge majority (98 percent) of the comments expressed support for keeping or expanding national monument designations.  Only one percent requested that we attempt to shrink or erase monument boundaries.

Public Lands Poll

There should be no further discussion about compromising public lands.  They are off the table.  Public lands are already protected in perpetuity for the benefit of the American people.  As Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, pointed out, the president has no legal authority to rescind or shrink a monument designation.IMG_4634

Public lands belong to all of us; not just to the relative few disgruntled neighbors who seem to be receiving a disproportionate share of this administration’s attention.  The Mt. St. Helens National Monument that I visited last month, for example, belongs to people who live on the east coast as much as it does those of us who are fortunate to live nearby.  The same is true of Hanford Reach and all other national monuments.  Every American is a public land owner

Mt. St. Helens National Monument

Mt. St. Helens National Monument, Washington

As a natural history tour guide, public lands are our top destinations.  Tourism is a major industry for many states, including ours.

Public lands are sacred places that enshrine our human and natural history.  They are places to recreate and to seek solace.  We value them and expect them to be protected for future generations; not desecrated for short-term gain.  Sally Jewell, former Department of the Interior Secretary said it clearly: Any move to eliminate or shrink monuments would put the president “on the wrong side of history.”  

Anna’s World Revisited   Recently updated !

Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle recently published this enhanced version of my essay about Anna’s Hummingbirds entitled Anna’s World :


P1070465 P1070475

Incredibly, Our Public Lands Are Under Assault

pompey and vicinity 001

Pompey’s Pillar National  Mounument, Montana

pompey and vicinity 014



Mt. St. Helens National Monument, Washington

It is astounding that I even had to write the piece below to defend our public lands, but such are the times we find ourselves in today. The current U.S. political administration wants to rescind more than two dozen national monuments.  These are places that had already been “saved” for present and future generations.

I encourage all of you who care about public lands to make your opinions known:  https://legal-planet.org/2017/05/10/public-lands-watch-comment-period-on-national-monuments/

Otherwise, as Joni Mitchell  said in her song lyric: “you won’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”


My letter to the Department of Interior:

One of the things I am most proud and patriotic about is our public lands. Public lands are our sacred lands. They are our most important natural, cultural and historical places. Conceived by Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot for the benefit of all, they represent a profoundly forward-thinking approach. It speaks well of us when we seek to protect our public lands; it speaks poorly of us when we seek to destroy them for short-term economic gain.

We were all horrified when we heard about ISIS intentionally destroying historic and religious landmarks in Syria. Now our administration proposes to do the same in the name of quick cash for oil, gas and mining.


Vermilion Cliffs National Monument – photo by Arizona Highways

I visit on average more than 25 different public lands per year. My livelihood depends upon them. So too do the economies of most western states that have tourism as one of their top industries. Millions of Americans who hunt, fish, hike, ski, bird-watch, bicycle, ride trails on motorized vehicles, botanize, study geology, learn about our history and culture, honor their relatives or just get away to enjoy the peaceful, beautiful places we are blessed to have — all cherish our public lands. I lead tours for groups of Americans as well as people from other countries who come here to see our amazing public lands. They are in awe of them and inspired by our enlightened efforts to safeguard them.

As Montana-based author Rick Bass said: “These lands are our outdoor churches, our cathedrals — and keeping them that way is the real economic foundation of the West. Open spaces attract new, high-paying industries and yield billions of dollars in tourism and recreation. When we are young, we hunt, hike, fish, camp, backpack, paddle, horseback ride, walk, run, raft and bicycle on our shared lands, and when we are old we stare out at their undiminished beauty.”

Brown's Canyon

I am completely opposed to any effort to compromise our public lands. Public lands are American birth rights. They make our country special and are the envy of the world. We need to conserve not destroy them.

“Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us.” Teddy Roosevelt

RX for Life: Go Outside More Often

Feeling glum, listless, low on energy and/or ideas? You might be suffering from “nature-deficit-disorder” as Richard Louv called it, or from an “epidemic dislocation from the outdoors” as Florence Williams refers to it in her new book.

Lori in Ravenna Pk

My wife, Lori enjoying a walk in our neighborhood park

Here’s a simple remedy: Take one 15-20 minute dose of walking through a park, natural area or other green space in your neighborhood daily and you will feel better.  Does this sound too good to be true?  Not according to Williams’ new book The Nature Fix – Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative.

Jason Mark wrote in his recent New York Times review of this book: “Imagine a miracle drug that could ease many of the stresses of modern life – a combination mood enhancer and smart pill that might even encourage the remission of cancer.  Now imagine that this cure-all was an old-fashioned folk remedy: Just take a hike in the woods or a walk in the park.  No prescription necessary.”

Although I have not read this book yet (I will), the title rings true. My book Look Up! Birds and Other Natural Wonders Just Outside Your Window http://conservationcatalyst.org/look-up/ preaches the same gospel.

I practiced what Williams and I both preach today. It was a cold, rainy, dreary day here in Seattle.  I had been preparing for upcoming tours and classes when the rain finally broke near dusk.  I threw on my coat and hustled outside for a short walk in the remaining light.  I was glad that I did.


Ravenna Park bike and pedestrian bridge

In the course of my 20 minute walk through Ravenna Park, along a tree-lined boulevard designed by the Olmsted Brothers, and back through a historic neighborhood to my house, I encountered multiple sensations that made this gray day brighter.

Pac Wren 1

Pacific Wren

While crossing the pedestrian and bicycle-only bridge that spans Ravenna Park, I heard the full song of a Pacific Wren sung several times.  This is no ordinary tune.  It is the longest bird song in North America, with a trilling assortment of 40+ notes. The singer is a bird that only weighs 4 ounces. This was a virtuoso performance and an harbinger of spring.

Another sign of spring was just around the corner: a blooming Pieris Shrub .  A cloud of its sweet fragrance filled the air.

As I circled back home through a neighborhood of well-maintained historic wood homes with quirky and artistic statements scattered about, I P1080163came across a yard filled with little ceramic figurines.  It looked as if they were swarming to an event of some sort. I grinned in appreciation of this whimsical artistic statement.

Dusk was falling as my stroll came to a close.  It brought a bit of magic into the day along with relaxation and exercise.  It helped me gain perspective and find joy during a time when the dark days have not only been due to the weather.

As Jason Mark pointed out in his review “Fortunately, getting a dose of nature doesn’t have to be hard.  Most people get a lot of benefit fromravenna forest city parks and as little as five hours a month does the trick.”

This is one of the great secrets in life, yet many never discover it.  And it is free. The more you do it, the more you gain appreciation for what there is to see, smell, hear and discover.  You get ideas, you find inspiration, you become calmer and happier.  It works.


Birder’s Ode to a Dead Tree

Recently, a wonderful surprise appeared in the mail: A poem and painting from Patricia Freres Stinger who said in her letter “I thought you might enjoy this poem (and painting) I wrote last fall. It was inspired in part by the discussion, Woody, in your book, “Look Up,” about snagscaping” http://conservationcatalyst.org/?s=snagscaping 
and the importance of leaving snags in place for the benefit of birds and other wildlife.”

Patricia’s Birder’s Ode to a Dead Tree was recently accepted for publication in the 2018 Wisconsin Poets’ Calendar.  I also thought that it was suitable for framing.P1070970

You never know when an idea will take root. At least six wildlife trees that I know of have been created/saved since I wrote my book. May there be many more. 



Name Dropping at the Dunn Gardens – Guest Blog by Beth Weir, Executive Director of Dunn Gardens

Note:  Beth Weir is hosting a birding class I am teaching at Dunn Gardens on April 11, 2017.  This blog is about her remarkable family connection to the name of one of the birds that inhabits Dunn Gardens during Spring and Summer.

I unexpectedly found the name of someone I am related to in the Seattle Times and felt odd. Reading my family name, Swainson, instantly conjured up a knot of childhood memories. Most notable was an image of my father, gardening with his pet pigeon on his shoulder. That particular memory popped up because the article was about the effect of habitat loss on birds. In particular, the difficulties of breeding of a beloved songbird in urban areas was explained.

The bird was Swainson’s Thrush. http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/environment/birds-in-the-suburbs-faced-with-development-some-thrive-some-move-out/

Swainson's Thrush

Swainson’s Thrush photo by Woody Wheeler

Swainson’s Thrush Catharus ustulatus) is a small, brown specimen and is named after my great-great-grandfather, William Swainson. He was a British naturalist of some renown, with a cranky disposition besides, if historic (and family) accounts are to be believed.

After seeing the article I emailed Woody Wheeler, also a noted naturalist, but one without the cranky disposition, to ask if participants in his April 11 bird watching class at the Dunn would see Swainson’s Thrush. “Not really,” he told me. “You’ll have to wait till May when there is a chance of hearing one, even if we don’t see it. “ (The call is described as upward-spiraling and flutelike by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Swainsons_Thrush/id


Woody Guiding Naturalist Journey Tour at Big Bend National Park

Woody should know. He has given bird identification classes at the Dunn before and they are always well attended. With good reason. The man has a long resumé that testifies to his passion and knowledge, plus an ability to share both with others. http://conservationcatalyst.org He has traveled the US and eight countries in tours related to birding and will have just returned from Peru as a guide on an Amazon River cruise when the Dunn class is held. So, even if you have been to a class at the Gardens before, there is much you can learn.

Genetic variation being what it is, I haven’t shared my ancestor’s passion for birds, but I enjoy traveling, as did he. And so does the thrush that bears Swainson’s name.

Swainson's Thrush Range Map

The little brown birds travel up and down the Americas in response to the seasons. I am hopeful one or two of them will choose to stop in the Dunn Gardens when they return in May. I will also welcome class members back to spot, or at the very least, to hear one over the summer.

Swainson's Thrush Cornell Photo

Swainson’s Thrush photo from  www.allaboutbirds.org

But, if I have failed to keep up academically with the recognized scholar in my family, I am proud of working to maintain an urban forest, otherwise named The Dunn Gardens. It is an oasis where birds that lose their habitats to urban development can breed and sing. And for Swainson’s Thrush, along with many other birds, that is critical if we want to keep them in our midst. And who can argue against an upward-spiraling and flute-like sound welcoming a spring morning. Doubtless that would have soothed even my cranky great-great-grandfather.

Saving America’s Icon

p1070533I never saw a Bald Eagle during my childhood in Illinois in the 1950s – 1960s.  Not because I was not observant, I was. It was because they had been extirpated in Illinois by 1918, meaning eliminated from this part of their range.  Illinois was not the only state where this occurred.  According to the Center for Biological Diversity,  Bald Eagles were also extirpated in 15 other states:  Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas Nebraska, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and South Dakota.  The state of Colorado only had one pair of Bald Eagles left in 1974.

Here is the good news:  All of these states and the rest of the
United States now have Bald Eagles.  Instead of destroying our national icon; we restored its population.


My home state of Illinois now has 135 pairs of Bald Eagles.  The Bald Eagle population in the lower-48 United States has increased from a low point of 417 pairs in 1963 to 9,789 pairs in 2007, which led to their de-listing.  In the words of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “It (the Bald Eagle) no longer needs the protection of the Endangered Species Act because its population is protected, healthy and growing.”

The recovery of Bald Eagles is a great national success story.  We brought back our national icon from a downward spiral that could have resulted in its extinction.  In the words of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology “The Bald Eagle’s recovery is a spectacular conservation success story…once endangered by hunting and pesticides, Bald Eagles have flourished under protection.”


Nesting Bald Eagle – Skagit County, WA

The Bald Eagle’s recovery is personal to me.  After moving to the West from the Midwest and eventually settling in Seattle, I recall when a pair of Bald Eagles established one of the city’s first nests at Discovery Park  – the other was in Seward Park – in the 1980s.  My wife and I held our wedding ceremony in Discovery park not far from the nest site.  At Seward Park, I helped establish the Audubon Center that now operates there.  Apparently, I was drawn to the same large parks in the city as the eagles were.  Now Seattle has at least 12 nesting pairs of Bald Eagles within its city limits.  Two pairs nest within two miles of my house.  After growing up in a place where Bald Eagles did not exist, I now see them flying over our back yard.


Wintering Bald Eagles in Skagit County, WA



While I was working for The Nature Conservancy in the 1980s – 1990s, we were part of the Bald Eagle recovery process.  The Conservancy purchased and protected lands for Bald Eagle nesting, roosting, wintering and feeding sites in Western Washington.  This work, along with many other state, federal, tribal, nonprofit and for profit company efforts led to a major increase in the state’s Bald Eagle population, from 104 pairs in 1980 to 835 pairs in 2007.


Washington now ranks fifth among states with the highest Bald Eagle Populations.  The top five are:  1.  Alaska (15,000 pairs); 2. Minnesota (1310 pairs); 3. Florida (1,166 pairs); 4. Wisconsin (1,065 pairs); and 5. Washington (835 pairs).

The demise and recovery of Bald Eagles begs two questions:  What caused their decline? And how did they recover from it?


Jeff Larsen photograph – 2 adult Bald Eagles

The decline of Bald Eagles was summarized by Cornell Lab of Ornithology: “Bald Eagles were victims of trapping, shooting, poisoning as well as pesticide-caused reproductive failures.”  The widespread use of the pesticide DDT (they used to spray it in my childhood neighborhood, and then suggest that we not play out doors for a one-day period!) caused egg shell thinning in a number of bird species at the top of the food chain, including:  Bald Eagle, Osprey, Peregrine Falcon and Brown and American White Pelicans.  The weakened eggs hatched pre-maturely causing the young to die.

How did Bald Eagle populations recover?  Through a combination of policies and actions, including:

  • Banning the use DDT (1972)
  • Listing them as Endangered Species (Endangered Species Act or ESA 1978)
  • Protecting Bald Eagle Nest Sites (Bald & Golden Eagle Protection Act, amended 1962)
  • Making it illegal to shoot or “take” them (Bald & Golden Eagle Protection Act, amended 1962)
  • Restoring Bald Eagles to the areas where they had been eliminated (ongoing for decades)
  • Cleaning up formerly contaminated streams, lakes and coastal areas (Clean Water Act, 1970 and Superfund Act 1980)

Bald Eagle perches on light fixture above Lake Washington, Seattle

Due to these collective and effective conservation efforts, the Bald Eagle is back.  Regulations along with concerted efforts by all sectors made this happen.  Bald Eagles are not the only ones we have brought back from the brink of extinction.  Peregrine Falcons, Brown and American White Pelicans, California Condors, Whooping Cranes, Grizzly Bears, Gray Wolves, American Alligators, and, Humpback Whales are among the species that have also been saved in the past few decades.  The Center for Biological Diversity estimates that 227 plant and animal species would likely have gone extinct if we had not passed and implemented the ESA.


Eagles soar over our back yard

Why save species? E.O. Wilson, a Harvard entomologist and a southern Baptist raised in Alabama said it best: “This is the assembly of life that took a billion years to evolve.  It has eaten the storms – folded them into its genes – and created the world that creates us.  It keeps the world steady.”

In the final analysis, saving species and the environment equates to saving ourselves.  We are a species too; we need clean air, clean water and a healthy ecosystem in order to survive.



Immature Bald Eagle

We have made great strides in protecting the environment since the 1960s.  I know; I was there.  You could not go swimming in many lakes and rivers; there were massive fish die offs.  The air made your eyes water.  Pollution was rampant.  Species were going extinct.  People threw trash out of car windows.  Nobody recycled.

Let’s not go back to these bad old days of mindlessly trashing the environment.
We have too much at stake and have come too far.

The Bald Eagle’s recovery shows what good people can do to save a fellow species, and in the process, make the environment cleaner and healthier for all of us.


  • Alaska Department of Fish and Game
  • Center for Biological Diversity
  • Cornell Lab of Ornithology www.allaboutbirds.com 
  • US Fish and Wildlife Service
  • Washington State Department of Wildlife

 – photos all taken by author except one as noted by Jeff Larsen