ROCKPORT — About 35 people braved the cold and rain Saturday morning on the lookout for Skagit Valley’s annual winter visitors — the bald eagles that perch high in trees on the river banks in search of salmon.

Skagit River Bald Eagle Interpretive Center’s guided nature hike, which is held annually every weekend in December and January, is about more than seeing the birds of prey in action. There is a focus on the link between bald eagles, salmon and the health of the ecosystem.

“(Skagit Valley) is like an Eagle McDonald’s,” said tour guide Matt Riggen, a visitor information assistant for the U.S. Forest Service. “They don’t have to do a lot of hunting as long as the salmon run is good.”

He said eagles travel south from British Columbia and as far north as central Alaska to feast on dead and dying chum salmon, which have swam up the Skagit River to spawn at the end of their life cycles.

The U.S. Forest Service has counted about 50% fewer eagles this season in the Rockport area, according to an information board at the center. Shannon Rupert, the center’s director, said the data indicates a poor salmon run.

“We expected to see more eagles this time of year and haven’t,” she said. “There’s not enough food.”

Kim Miller, a project leader for Snohomish County 4-H, attended the tour with about a dozen students. She said the tour helps kids learn about the area’s natural resources.

“(The tour) covers more than just eagles, so it’s a great opportunity for kids to learn more about fish, lichen and geology,” she said.

During the hour-long tour, the group paused to get a look at an eagle perched far away in the tree tops.

Greyson Ross, 9, of Anacortes attended the tour with his family.

“Eagles have a really big wing span and like to be by the water,” he said. “(I learned today) the little eagles look bigger than adults.”

Riggen said juvenile bald eagles are larger than adults because their feathers are longer to help them learn how to fly.

Guided nature hikes are held at 11 a.m. every Saturday and Sunday through Jan. 26 at the center at Howard Miller Steelhead Park in Rockport.

— Reporter Jacqueline Allison: jallison@skagitpublishing.com, 360-416-2145, Twitter: @Jacqueline_SVH

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