Ask your average Vancouverite where you should go to see bald eagles in Vancouver and you’ll get nothing more than an “I dunno”. If you’re lucky, and they happen to be a nature lover, they’ll probably point you to Brackendale.
Spoiler alert. Brackendale is awesome. But you don’t have to go that far for the chance to photograph these beautiful and majestic birds. There’s somewhere much closer to Vancouver. It’s 72nd Street.
Brackendale is a small town north of Squamish – a 45 minute drive from Vancouver – once branded “The World Bald Eagle Capital”. It got its name by setting the yearly eagle count record back in 1994 where 3,769 showed up along its five-river ecosystem.
The count is held on the same day every year – making the statistical validity of the count total nonsense as the variance from day to day, or week to week, depends on much more than the fact that it happens consistently on the nth day after the biggest hangover of the year, every year.
Eagles are tourists too
On a recent bald eagle float trip operated by Sunwolf, I learned that there are a staggeringly low number of bald eagles that call the area home (four was the quoted number, but I’m unsure of its accuracy or whether it referred to birds or pairs of birds), yet during the winter months this number multiplies by up to 1,000 – attracting imports from Alaska and the Canadian Rockies. No, there are not always 4,000 eagles lining the river system, but if you took a macro view of the Lower Mainland, you’ll quickly see how omnipotent they can be from November to February.
The problem with Brackendale
It’s fucking cold. Okay that’s not the problem. There is no problem with Brackendale. Brackendale is sick awesome. But it does require a pretty big investment in terms of time, and equipment if you want to do it right. By doing it right, I mean spending hours sitting and waiting, or hiking, to happen upon the magic moments we all wish for when we walk out the door with our cameras.
If you want to see bald eagles in Brackendale it’s stupidly easy. Go there. Go to the dyke viewing area on the Squamish River. Look across the river at the eagles in the trees. Wait ten minutes and watch them fly right over your head.(The three snowy shots were taken looking across the river from the viewing dyke. It’s a long way so these are cropped. The darker three were from the Sunwolf rafting trip.)
The problem I have with Brackendale is that I don’t live there. Yet as an obsessive photographer, when you get a taste for photographing something as brilliant as the bald eagle, you quickly start to need that fix all the time.
The problem with Brackendale – if you’re a wildlife photographer from Vancouver – is that the light doesn’t show up at sunrise due to the height of the surrounding mountains. So even if you wanted to get up at 6am to catch sunrise at Brackendale and get back to town for work, you can’t. It’s cold, and it’s dark.
I want to see bald eagles in Vancouver.
I actually love that it’s not easy. Friction is a good thing when it comes to nature, as we must be mindful (above all else) that we’re not negatively impacting the animals.
So where *is* the best place to see bald eagles in Vancouver? 72nd Street.
72nd Street in Delta to be specific, on the way to Boundary Bay. Seriously. Go to Delta. It takes half as long, doesn’t require snow chains, and you’re not standing 200m away on the wrong side of the Squamish river.
I’ll get into specific below, but essentially, if you head to Boundary Bay, as soon as you get 15 minutes south of the city you’ll start seeing eagles – and other birds of prey – everywhere you look.
If you’re coming from Vancouver, you take exit 23 off Highway 99. Turn right on Ladner Trunk Road and it’s a quick dash west to 72nd Street.
72nd Street takes you all the way down to the Boundary Bay Dyke Trail where snowy owls show up every seven years or so (which by happenstance is what first drew me down this way last week). On the way you’ll pass by a place called Westcoast Lawns. In the distance there’s a field where I’ve seen upward of 200 bald eagles hanging out with 500 gulls. There’s a nest beside the road that’s a great place to photograph eagles, but please don’t enter onto the private property of the lawns place (you’ll see signs). So stick to the opposite side of the road where there’s a pullout and plenty of space to roam on the other side of the stream bed.
That’s where I got these shots.
Okay, that’s pretty awesome. But there’s a better spot.
THIS PLACE >> North 40 Park Reserve in Boundary Bay, Delta
Far better than standing by the side of the road however, is back up 72nd behind you about 400m at a place called North 40 Park Reserve. It’s incredible there right now. I’ve only been when it’s raining, so I’m super excited to head back down this week when the sun comes back out.
Head for the red dot on the map below.
I spent an hour wandering around the reserve in the pouring rain today, staring at tree after tree filled with two, five, ten, twenty bald eagles. Some just 40ft above my head like the juvenile below.
(Due to the rain and dull, overcast weather, I was shooting at ISO 4,000 in preparation for action shots. Which reminds me I need to get my custom presets ready as this guy didn’t actually need the minimum 1/1,000th shutter speed I had set.)
It wasn’t a day of epic shots – I’ll be back for those – but I did see some epic behaviour. Check out the shot below where four adults are crowding in on a juvie. They got all tangled up mid air as they fought or played in the distant sky.
(Not close enough to be photographically viable, but awesome nonetheless to know of, and witness this incredible behaviour right in our backyard.)
One thing I will say, is that the trees are really tall, so the eagles can be quite high above you. Also, there are so many eagles there – you’ll see multiple trees with 5 or 10 eagles sitting together, that you can suffer from the paradox of choice. Should I go over there? Or there? This is why the nest by the lawns company is awesome, because you are limited to one tree grouping and don’t have anywhere else to wander.
The best strategy is to pick a place and stay there. The eagles will come and go and if you’re patient (as will all wildlife photography) you’ll see some amazing displays of behaviour. In particular, because there are so many large groups, you’re likely to see the entanglements like the one in the photo above.
Another good idea is to get yourself in the middle of one of the meadows, with a clear 360 degree view. Then just wait for an eagle with a flight path in line with you.
So now you know. The best place in Vancouver to see bald eagles is 72nd Street.
Go to 72nd Street in Delta. Park at North 40. Get there for sunrise (it’s open dawn to dusk). And just wait. I predict you’ll see something marvellous, and hopefully get an epic shot to take back to your Vancouver office a mere 25 minute drive north.
— Oli Gardner