David Hancock says more than 35,000 eagles visit the Fraser Valley every year. (Ap Hovasse instagram.com/aphovasse file photo)

Fraser Valley eagles outfitted with tracking system

Raptor specialist monitoring movement, habits of birds of prey

The eagles are back, and they’re more fashionable than ever.

More than 50 years ago, raptor specialist David Hancock counted three pairs of nesting eagles in the Fraser Valley.

Today, there are nearly a thousand nesting in the same area, and some of them are now sporting a $5,000 “backpack.”

The pack, courtesy of the Hancock Wildlife Foundation, is a tracking system that provides daily updates of the bird’s movement.

The organization has purchased eight tracking devices, and hopes to equip as many as 100 birds with the system if the foundation is able to raise enough money.

So far, five devices have been secured to eagles.

“We tracked one four days ago,” Hancock told Peace Arch News Wednesday. “The first day it went out to Roberts Bank, the next day it went to the Mission landfill. The next day it went to the Harrison River and the last two days it’s been going north up the Fraser River. Yesterday it was just north of Boston Bar.”

The South Surrey man says he has no idea if the bird they track is a local, or northern breeder.

“This is potentially a breeding bird. It’s obviously heading back to its breeding territory. It might be up in the Yukon. But my God, the Yukon hasn’t thawed yet. Those lakes probably have a foot of ice on them.”

The device is secured to the eagle’s back. To catch the bird, Hancock says they use a snare, but also have a “net launcher,” although they have yet to find success with the latter.

The solar-powered tracker can last three weeks without sunlight, he said. It transmits location to cellphone towers. If it loses connection with a tower, it will store data until it can reconnect.

Hancock’s team is developing an online tool that will allow the public to see updates of the location of the raptor. So far, only the Hancock Wildlife Foundation has access to the information.

“It’s about getting local people involved. Getting them to care about the environment,” Hancock said.

Hancock, who conducted his first aerial study of the Fraser region in 1953, explained the dramatic increase of eagle populations in the area, something he contributes to interest from local citizens.

When he first started tracking eagles, they were nearly wiped out in the Pacific Northwest.

“The reason was, Americans paid a bounty on eagles. They were all worth $2 for a pair of legs. That pretty much eliminated the eagles as a breeding bird in Washington State and pretty much from the Fraser Valley.”

Hancock said “fishermen from Blaine” were shooting the eagles for gas money to return to Alaska.

Today, there are about 400 pairs nesting in the Fraser region and 12 active pairs nesting on the Semiahmoo Peninsula, he said.

By his estimate, there are 35,000 eagles visiting the Fraser Valley each year.

“It’s been an incredibly successful story of recovery and it’s totally and absolutely due to the changes in human attitudes.”

The biggest threat to the eagle population today, Hancock said, is the removal of large trees from the Fraser region.

Eagles prefer to nest 80-to-100-feet above the ground, and the nesting tree must be required to hold a 300-to-1,500-pound nest, he said.

The largest bald eagle nest ever recorded, found near St. Petersburg, Florida, weighed more than 4,409 pounds.

“We just don’t leave a lot of those trees. They’re either blocking somebody’s view, or we wanted lumber for them. Maybe it’s dangerous and might blow over.”

He said a good, suitable tree for an eagle’s nest is a 150-year-old fir tree.

Hancock and his team have built the foundation for about a dozen nests in the region. The eagles, while searching for a home, notice the opportunity and complete the build.

The Hancock Wildlife Foundation has set up several live cameras at various eagle nests throughout the Fraser Region, which can be viewed at www.hancockwildlife.org.

Hancock will speak on the value of trees and their relationships with birds at Ocean Park Community Hall March 4.

The event starts at 7 p.m.

Live video of an eagle cam in Delta.

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