Though she may look stoic, Annie has a lot to tell us.
The West Vancouver bald eagle is now one of a handful in the region we can keep a constant eye on as her every movement is tracked, logged and shared with researchers, wildlife advocates and the public.
Eagles, famously, are highly territorial and in June of 2022, Annie got into a border skirmish with another female trying to nose in on her racket.
“They both ended up with locked talons. Their talons were stuck in each other’s stomachs,” said Sally McDermott, North Shore Eagle Network co-ordinator.
Thankfully, the Eagle Network volunteers spotted them before it became fatal, and the experts at the Orphan Wildlife Rescue Society were able to separate the raptors, stitch them both up and administer antibiotics to ward off infection. (One of the volunteers got their finger bit in the process, though it remains a point of pride.)
Before she was ready for release, the Hancock Wildlife Foundation deemed Annie would be a good candidate for a tracker.
“It’s exciting, because that’s the first bird on the North Shore that has a tracker on her,” McDermott said. “Of course, there’s still so much to learn and these trackers do help us learn.”
There are now 30 eagles wearing trackers courtesy of the Hancock Wildlife Foundation in partnership with the Bald Eagle Tracking Alliance and Simon Fraser University.
The tracker Annie wears on her back is just the latest in a series of technological developments aimed at giving us a better understanding of bird behaviour.
As a young man in the 1960s, David Hancock first experimented with putting radio frequency beacons on birds, which could only be effective if it came within range of the antenna.
The Hancock Wildlife Foundation, which he founded after becoming one of the world’s foremost experts on eagles, was later one of the early adopters of live-streaming technology when they trained cameras on nests.
More recently, a friend of Hancock’s developed, along with NASA, the technology to track birds from satellites, but the cost was extremely high.
Then in 2018, they found this simplest and most cost-effective way to track eagles – backpack-mounted transmitters that link up with the nearest cell tower whenever their tiny solar power panel provides enough juice to share their telemetry data. With enough sunlight, it could be one GPS location every hour, Hancock said.
They cost about $3,000 per unit, which the Hancock Foundation has been seeking donors and research grants to supply.
It’s a bit of a task to carefully get an eagle into a Teflon harness, Hancock said, but if the birds are bothered by the backpack or concerns about their privacy, they haven’t raised it with him.
“I don’t know what they think about it. It’s probably a pain in the ass,” he joked, adding that there are now thousands of birds around the world that have them. “It’s almost been totally positive with no real negative ramifications to the birds and yet, the information we get is incredible.”
A view from above
Thanks to the ability to track the movements of eagles like Annie, they’re letting us in on a lot of their secrets. We now know they can get from here to Alaska in as little as two days, and some travel as far as the Bering Sea.
“It’s been absolutely revolutionary in our thinking about what happens,” Hancock said. “We’ve had no idea about what these young birds really are up to, what they’re capable of, or how they survive.”
Looking at Annie’s trajectory, which anyone can track on the Hancock Wildlife Foundation’s website, we can see she took off almost immediately after being released from rehab for her annual northern migration to feast on the carcasses of spawning salmon in Alaska.
Since her return in October, Annie’s map looks like a toddler’s scribbling of multiple trips per day from her nest north of Lighthouse Park to West Grebe Islet, a rocky outcropping recently donated to the District of West Vancouver for environmental protection. There, she and her mate perch on a Canadian Coast Guard beacon, and hunt.
Curiously, for reasons not known to anyone but Annie, she decided to visit Capilano Lake on Nov. 15. Then on Dec. 21, she popped in on one of her old nests, deep inside Lighthouse Park.
The most important discovery courtesy of the trackers has been a sort of census of the eagles we see from our windows in the Lower Mainland. It’s long been known that local eagles migrate north but it’s only recently become clear that the vast majority that we see are migrants from Alaska, here to scavenge, as they’ve evolved to do.
For decades, their most abundant food source has been in humans’ leavings picked over from landfills.
Hancock estimates the 35,000 or so eagles that pass through each year outnumber our own local breeding population by a ratio of about 35 to one.
“These two populations end up coming together, right here,” Hancock said. “They’re northern birds, but we are totally responsible for feeding and looking after them on their southern migration.… We didn’t really recognize that we were the sole supplier of their food source for so long.”
On a precipice
In the 1940s and '50s, Washington State officials viewed eagles as pests and put a $2 bounty on every pair of legs that hunters turned in. They were hunted nearly to extirpation. Since then, their population has bounced back remarkably and there are now more than 600 nests that the Hancock Wildlife Foundation keeps track of in the Fraser Valley alone.
But our new knowledge of West Coast eagle migrations comes as new threats to their population have emerged.
“I can see a catastrophe coming,” Hancock said.
Their two main food sources are being clawed back. Salmon returns have been declining, thanks to commercial fishing, habitat destruction, climate change and other human intrusions. More recently though, there have been concerted efforts to remove food waste and other organics from the stream of garbage headed for landfills and divert it to composting facilities for reuse as soil.
Though it’s good environmental policy from a solid waste perspective, it’s a calamity for tens of thousands of eagles that have evolved to be scavengers here for half of the year.
“The eagles are really pressed and I have predicted that over the next few years, there’s going to be an absolute disaster and we may be already experiencing it,” Hancock said.
Annie and her mate have successfully reared eaglets every year up until 2022 when their chick died in the nest after two weeks. That same year, there was an 80 per cent drop in the number of successful fledges from North Shore nests. Avian flu was the prime suspect.
Help from below
In light of the struggle eagles are facing, and the data we now have about their behaviour, Hancock has been working on some management strategies that could keep them from the brink once again.
For local nesting eagles, the obvious answer is to ensure their nests, perches and hunting grounds go undisturbed, Hancock said. Mostly that would involve rigorously enforcing protection laws that already exist.
The impending famine is a tougher one. But if human intervention is disrupting eagles' ability to access food, then there’s an argument that humans have an obligation to provide some means of mitigation, Hancock reasons, although he’s not quite ready to go public with his ideas.
In the meantime, Annie will continue to be a closely watched bird, both by the tracker she wears on her back and by the volunteers in North Shore Eagle Network.
When one in a pair of mated eagles dies, the survivor will typically find a new mate. Annie and her mate are part of a continuous line of eagles that have nested in roughly the same spot since 1964 – one of only three known mating pairs in all of Metro Vancouver at the time. Almost every eagle living on the South Coast and northern Washington State descends from those three pairs. Hancock knows because he’s been observing them ever since.
Volunteers like McDermott are hoping to see their legacy continue. Annie and her mate have already built a new nest, and if all goes well, they’ll have the next generation of chicks this spring.
“They’re lovely, magnificent creatures. They’re a top predator. They’re an indication of how the rest of the environment is doing,” McDermott said. “We just need some more awareness that these are creatures that we need to admire and protect.”
To contribute to the Hancock Wildlife Foundation, visit their fundraising campaign page.
To inquire about volunteering with the North Shore Eagle Network, email Sally McDermott at firstname.lastname@example.org