If you love Oregon’s wide open vistas, consider weekend travel to Central Oregon’s Lake Billy Chinook, where newcomers and experienced birders enjoy spectacular views to birds of prey during the annual “Eagle Watch.”
Framed by towering 400-foot canyon walls, Lake Billy Chinook offers a unique perspective on Central Oregon that also provides plenty of elbow room. The lake – due west of Madras – is framed by the snow-covered Cascade Mountains to the west and a vast undulating high desert to the east, It is big country, where distances are great and people are few.
But Oregon State Parks Interpretive Ranger Paul Patton noted that when it comes to Eagle Watch, the lack of people is actually a good thing. “There are some days when you will see more bald eagles and golden eagles than you do people in the park. It’s just stunning to watch the wildlife,” he said.
He’s right. We found a compelling wildlife show at The Cove Palisades State Park Viewpoint #2. The spacious viewpoint offers a breathtaking view of the lake and its varied canyons – but we were soon drawn to a more dramatic life and death show that played out hundreds of feet below us on the lake’s surface.
Not one but two bald eagles repeatedly buzzed a flock of ducks. The little waterfowl were bunched up wing-to-wing so to avoid getting caught by the eagle’s sharp talons. We watched this age-old predator-prey game marked by multiple eagle dives, with talons extended, for more than fifteen minutes. It was a remarkable activity amid a timeless rim rock country on a lake that’s more than seven miles long.
PGE Wildlife Biologist Robert Marheine said that Lake Billy Chinook has been a drawing card for the eagles for many years. “Well, it’s a combination of plentiful food (the lake is home to a bountiful kokanee salmon) plus, huge rocky cliff escarpments that provide preferred raptor roosting and nesting habitat – it’s a special place,” he said.
Marheine was quick to add that wintertime eagle viewing demands preparation including warm clothing, powerful but comfortable binoculars and finally, lots of patience. “I don’t know how many times we’ve been out here with people who say, ‘I don’t see an eagle,’” said Marheine. “And they jump into their cars and leave. Too bad! Usually, that’s when a bald eagle comes right up to us on a thermal and drifts over our heads. If you bring patience, you will be rewarded.”
PGE’s “Round Butte Overlook Park” is a good place to duck in to learn more about Lake Billy Chinook (the lakes formed when Round Butte Dam was completed in 1964), plus the eagles and other wildlife that live in the area.
It is also the main site for the upcoming 18th annual Eagle Watch event that is co-sponsored by PGE and Oregon State Parks.
The popular event draws folks from all over the west during the last full weekend in February. Patton noted that many people come to Eagle Watch to learn more from the eagle experts and guest speakers who attend the two day event.
“Eagle Watch has grown into a major event for our region,” added Patton. “You can learn about the natural and cultural history of this area and usually see plenty of eagles. It is great fun for the entire family and it’s free! Whether you’re a first time eagle viewer or seasoned researcher, Eagle Watch offers something for everybody.”
About the Author: Grant McOmie
Grant McOmie is a Pacific Northwest broadcast journalist, teacher and author who writes and produces stories and special programs about the people, places, outdoor activities and environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest. A fifth generation Oregon native, Grant’s roots run deepest in the central Oregon region near Prineville and Redmond where his family continues to live.