The Bald Eagle is a large bird of prey with wingspans over seven feet and weighing up to 15 pounds. The females are typically about 20 percent larger than the males. They are opportunistic feeders eating anything from carrion to live fish. This eagle has eyesight that surpasses human capabilities by as much as eight times. They use this ability to track fish and small mammals from the air. They capture their prey in three inch talons that they can open and close at will. These talons have a lifting power of up to four pounds. It is not uncommon to see a Bald Eagle capture a fish too large for it to lift. Instead of choosing to let the meal go, the eagle gets pulled into the water after the fish. In such cases, they are able to swim using their wings — but, if the distance is too far, they may die of hypothermia before reaching the shore.
Adult Bald Eagles are dark brown with striking white heads and tails. They do not gain the white feathers until they are between three to five years old. Juveniles are brown, mottled with white in the chest and the undersides of their wings. Bald Eagles mate for life and return to the same nesting site each year. The San Juans boast one of the largest nesting sites in the lower 48 states. To spot these birds, look for what appears to be a golf ball hanging in a tree. This will most likely materialize into the white head of an adult Bald Eagle. They may also be found on beaches, eating dead salmon salmon that are too heavy for them to lift.
These raptors live around both fresh and salt water, eating almost exclusively fish. They can sometimes be confused with Bald Eagles but are smaller, with a wingspan of five feet and weighing only three pounds. Adults are dark brown with white on the crest of their heads and a prominent dark eye stripe. These birds build bulky nests in trees, on sheds, poles, docks and on special platforms built for them by environmental groups. Like the Bald Eagle, the Osprey was endangered by habitat destruction and pesticides that prevented or damaged reproduction. Due to conservation programs and the elimination of these pesticides in recent years, both species seem to be recovering. It is easiest to spot this bird while it is in flight. Note how their narrow wings bend back at the wrist like a gulls. They can also be observed hovering over the water before diving and snatching their prey feet first.
Great Blue Heron
This is arguably the most distinct and recognizable bird in the Pacific Northwest. They are four feet tall, gray birds with a black stripe extending over their eyes. Their white fore neck is streaked with black. The Great Blue Heron is a year round resident to the bays, salt marshes and rocky coasts of this region. They stalk through the shallow water on slender legs while plunging their long, sharp bills under the surface to capture fish, frogs and other small aquatic animals. Herons nest high in the treetops close to water. They have a six foot wingspan and are the only heron-like birds to fold their necks back into an “S” shape during flight. To spot a Great Blue Heron, look for them wading near rocky beaches, through kelp beds and along the beach during low tides. To spot them in flight, look for their “S” shaped necks. Deception Pass is a favorite heron hangout.
Three different species of cormorants occur in the region. The most common are the Pelagic and the Brandt’s Cormorant. Cormorants are dark in color with colorful, bare facial skin, set back legs and long hooked bills. Though not closely related to pelicans, these birds also have a small throat pouch used for feeding and breeding purposes. Unlike most water birds, cormorants do not have waterproof feathers. This allows them to dive to depths of 200 feet or more to capture herring and other small fish. When they surface, they cannot fly immediately and must dry their wings by spreading them away from their bodies and flapping them. The best way to spot cormorants is to look for them drying their wings on rocky outcroppings and on top of buoys. You may also see them swimming submerged to their necks but they are wary and usually dive out of sight when approached.
These birds are alcid, meaning they spend most of their lives out at sea, except during breeding season. Puffins are known for their colorful bills, though the colorful part of the bill falls off at the end of the breeding season. The Tufted Puffin also has two tufts of feathers above the eyes that look like bushy eyebrows. These, too, fall off at the end of the breeding season. Sailors have called puffins “sea parrots” because of their stout bodies, short wings and their webbed feet, which sit far back on their bodies. To spot this colorful bird, look for them floating on the water or nesting in protected tunnels and coves. Puffins cannot instinctively tell the sex of another puffin. To overcome this obstacle, males will offer fish to other puffins. When a fish is accepted, the male knows that he has found a female.