I think I know much about Oregon’s varied wildlife species, but I have to admit, when it comes to the names we give “collections” of wildlife I am often stumped.
Did you know that many deer are called a “herd,” but they can also be called a “bevy?” A collection of elk is not a herd but a “gang?” Collections of birds can be called flocks or flights – but geese can also be called a gaggle or a skein.
And that brings us to our nation’s symbol – the center piece of this week’s getaway: bald eagles never gather in flocks but something far more regal called a “convocation.”
One of the most amazing Oregon wildlife moments is found atop four story-tall cottonwood trees near Tangent where an eagle convocation draws up to 100 eagles in the Linn County tree tops each evening.
Even more remarkable, according to Jeff Fleischer, a retired US Fish and Wildlife Refuge Manager, is that this convocation of eagles didn’t exist five years ago.
Fleischer has tallied a rapid rise in the wintertime Willamette Valley eagle population. “We have seen a wholesale increase; a doubling and then tripling of bald eagles in the southern end of the Willamette Valley.”
Fleischer is a member of the East Cascades Audubon Society and leads a statewide Raptor Survey Project; he will drive more than 2400 miles across Willamette Valley main lines and back roads to count eagles in trees, on poles, in fields or in flight.
Over the last several years, a typical high count for a winter’s day was 50. Fleisher said last year that number skyrocketed. “We had 217 in one day!”
Fleischer said he thinks more eagles have arrived in the Willamette Valley because the dining is so good. “During the winter, a lot of sheep …will die for various reasons and the carcasses are left in the fields. That’s what eagles key in on without question.”
Fleischer said the winter sheep population has grown because farmers have changed the types of grass they grow for Oregon’s grass seed market. New grasses tolerate winter grazing and allow farmers to make more money by grazing more flocks of sheep.
“The increase in sheep brought the increase in eagles,” noted Fleischer. “It’s an easily accessed food source and eagles don’t have to expend a lot of energy to eat.”
Joel Geier is a member of Oregon’s Field Ornithologists and his organization recently partnered with other groups, including Oregon’s Division of Tourism, to identify 130 Birding Trails in the Willamette Valley. He said eagle viewing opportunities are spectacular and could bring even more visitors to rural towns in the valley. “You may see eagles standing on the ground, perched in trees are flying across the fields – they are distinct and hard to miss.”
Geier said visitors can follow the Willamette Valley Birding Trail that goes past the eagle convocation in Linn County. “You don’t need fancy optics to see eagles because they are so big. Some may be seen just a hundred yards off the roadway.”
Steve Seibel enjoys taking photos of eagles and he has documented their feeding behavior. “Typically, the birds displace each other – that is, one will feed for awhile and then another will come in and move the first bird away. The food seems to be so abundant that they don’t fight to hold their position – seems like they’re living in the land of plenty here.”
Geier reminds visitors that etiquette demands you should pull to the side of the road and not block private roads or driveways.
“Be aware that almost everything ten feet off the road is private land,” said Geier. “So stay on the shoulder of the roadway and don’t wander across fields.”
You can also visit wildlife refuges and see eagles in the Willamette Valley. Molly Monroe, US Fish and Wildlife Biologist at William Finley National Refuge near Corvallis said that there are three wildlife refuges – Finley, Ankeny and Baskett Slough that are easily accessed public settings to see bald eagles and other birds, including thousands of waterfowl.
“As long as you find open bodies of water where there are ducks and geese it’s a given you’ll see one or two eagles – they are always on watch – either perched or actively hunting. It’s a treat for everyone to see an eagle.”
For information about Oregon’s birding trails and to get the weekly wildlife report about birds and other wildlife activity, visit the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife bird watching page.