BAY VIEW — While bald eagles aren’t an uncommon sight along the shorelines of Padilla Bay or throughout the region, at least one with unusual coloring has been spotted this summer in the Bay View area.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service staff believe the eagle — which has an almost white, marbled appearance — has genetic mutations that prevent it from developing the brown hues seen on other bald eagles.
These types of mostly white eagles, as well as eagles with spots of white, are called leucistic.
“The plumage of leucistic birds might be completely white, or the white might be distributed irregularly over the bird,” said Michael Green, deputy chief of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Migratory Birds & Habitat Program.
In the case of this eagle, a lack of pigmentation throughout the body and wings gives it “a frosted look,” he said after reviewing photos taken of the eagle along Bayview-Edison road.
Lance Douglas of Blakely Island has twice seen and photographed the eagle along the road, near the south end of the Padilla Bay Shore Trail.
He said both times he was driving along Bayview-Edison road when the eagle caught his attention.
“The closer I got the weirder it looked and it just didn’t look right,” Douglas said of the first time he saw it, perched on a telephone pole. “I slowed down, saw it, snapped a few pictures and said ‘Wow.’ It was very obviously just something different.”
A few days later, he saw it again, this time perched in a tree.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Douglas said. “I’ve been looking at eagles for 60 years and I’ve never had one that made me stop my car on the road.”
He said he guessed that the white head of the eagle indicates it’s an adult.
The experts at the federal Migratory Birds & Habitat Program agreed.
“It takes four years for bald eagles to grow in the white head and tail feathers typical of adults, and this bird’s white head and tail appear to be white by age,” Green said.
Because the typical brown pigmentation adds resilience to feathers, leucistic eagles are believed to be at a disadvantage for survival, Green said. But this eagle may have beaten the odds.
“I would say this bird has survived well despite its abnormal coloration,” he said.
Eagles and birds of other species have been noted with full or partial leucisism, but each can be different and interesting to see.
“Personally, I’ve never seen a bald eagle this light ... I would consider this a relatively rare sighting,” said Matthew Stuber, Pacific region eagle coordinator for the Fish & Wildlife Service.
Tim Manns of the Skagit Audubon Society said leucistic bald eagles have been seen in the area before.
“I know that leucistic bald eagles show up in Skagit County from time to time,” he said. “I recall seeing one 10 or so years ago around March Point, and that bird was being seen and noticed by a lot of people. I’ve heard of instances since then too.”
A spotted bald eagle also suspected of being leucisistic was documented near Bellingham in the winter of 2013, according to a National Geographic report.