Powderhounds and bald eagles visit Vail Valley in winter
November 24, 2009
VAIL VALLEY, Colorado – Driving along U.S. Highway 6 in Colorado’s Vail Valley provides an interesting perspective of the seasonal influx of residents and visitors to our valley.
Here, the advent of ski season is like spring run-off for the Eagle River. The roadway surges with vehicles and pedestrians flowing in and out of the ski areas. If you take a moment to look beyond the highway and into the trees, you’ll discover another winter visitor arriving in our valley. Above the current of traffic and people and the river, you may glimpse a bald eagle.
From December through March, the Highway 6 corridor along the Eagle River is a great place to spot bald eagles. These unmistakable birds with dark bodies, white head and tail feathers, and a 7.5 foot wingspan are only found in North America, and they are becoming increasingly common in Colorado. Over 100 nesting pairs were reported in the state last year and eight hundred bald eagles winter in our state. Most bald eagles spend the nesting and summer season in the northern United States and Canada.
The growing bald eagle population is an environmental success story. Less than 50 years ago, eagle numbers had dwindled to a dangerous low of 417 pairs in the lower 48 states. Habitat loss, poaching and pesticide poisoning threatened the species, and in 1967 bald eagles received federal protection as an endangered species.
Their comeback is directly related to a U.S. ban on the use of the pesticide DDT in 1972. Today, there are over 10,000 breeding pairs of bald eagles in the lower 48 states, and they are no longer on the federal endangered species list.
Colorado’s eagles are still listed as threatened at the state level and all eagles are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Only U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials are allowed to remove dead eagles or their parts (including feathers) from the wild, and the possession of eagle parts is illegal without a permit.
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If you come across a dead eagle, do not touch or remove it, but report the finding to a wildlife official. Officials will send the bird to The National Eagle Repository near Denver. This facility functions as a morgue for eagles from around the nation. Its purpose is to meet the need for eagle parts for religious ceremonies without hunting eagles. Native Americans apply for permits and receive eagle parts for ceremonies that are shipped out weekly from the repository.
The presence of bald eagles in our valley is inspiring. They remind us that we can learn about and restore our environment. Take some time to study bald eagles by watching them this winter. The majority of their diet is carrion, but these raptors are especially adapted for catching fish so they are often seen along rivers and reservoirs.
The Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge near Denver is one of Colorado’s most popular eagle viewing sites, but in our county, driving on Highway 6 along the Eagle River provides plenty of opportunities to observe these special winter residents.
The Gore Range Natural Science School’s Curious Nature column appears Mondays in the Vail Daily and on http://www.vaildaily.com. Ann Stevenson is the Community Programs Director at Gore Range Natural Science School where she enjoys sharing her passion for the natural world with people of all ages on outdoor learning adventures. Visit http://www.gorerange.org.