Each autumn, wildlife enthusiasts from as far as Europe, Africa and Australia flock to tiny Haines, Alaska, to view one of the world's largest congregations of American bald eagles.
"We have 3,000 to 4,000 eagles here during that time period," said Cheryl McRoberts, executive director of the American Bald Eagle Foundation (ABEF) in Haines. She recalls one recent year when she and her husband parked outside of town at the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, stood in front of their car and started counting.
"We got up to 750 and stopped," McRoberts said. "That time of year, every log is filled and not by just one eagle. They're all lined up, five to 10 birds on each, and you just stand there in awe."
Birdwatchers and nature lovers celebrate the annual experience during the Alaska Bald Eagle Festival, which this year takes place from Nov. 7 to 10. McRoberts and her ABEF team organize the event, and timing is based around a late-season salmon run that attracts the eagles.
"The eagles start coming here in mid-October and they're normally gone by Christmas," said McRoberts. "Most are up in the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, which is about 19 miles out the highway. There's a four-mile section of the river that doesn't freeze, and there's a late salmon run there. All of the eagles come down here to fill up on food before they migrate south."
The Alaska Bald Eagle Festival, now in its 24th year, started as a chamber of commerce initiative and moved under the foundation's umbrella when its public facility opened in 1994. The ABEF raptor center and natural history museum are now open to visitors year-round.
At the beginning, all festival events took place at the museum.
"Now, we have events all around town," said McRoberts, listing highlights like a Wednesday dinner at the Haines Borough Public School and Friday night's Wild and Scenic Film Festival and dinner at the Southeast Alaska State Fairgrounds.
A trio of sessions at the foundation opens each day of the festival. During 11 a.m. trainer chat sessions, staffers who work with the organization's eagles, owls, falcons and hawks introduce the resident raptors and give educational talks. At noon, natural history seminars spotlight the rich ecosystems and bald eagle habitats of the Chilkat Valley. Trainers bring live birds to the bald eagle talks offered at 1 p.m. each afternoon.
Additional highlights include an art bazaar showcasing the wildlife-themed work of local artists, a cultural program with dancers and speakers who will discuss ties between the eagle and the raven, and a small-group photography workshop held at the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve.
Jason Beale, animal care program director at Penn State University's Shaver's Creek Environmental Center, is the Thursday evening keynote speaker. He'll explore the concept of "naturiotism," the patriotic call to protect unique flora, fauna and landscapes that have defined the American experience.
Following Beale's presentation, festival organizers will repeat the popular BirdTalk event that debuted in 2017.
"BirdTalk features seven minutes with seven speakers. People are invited to get up and share their own favorite bird stories, poems and music in an open mic sort of format. It was a big hit last year," McRoberts said.
During Saturday's Flight for Freedom at the Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage Center, attendees can bid on the chance to release rehabilitated eagles into the wild. The wounded birds were nursed back to health by the team at Bird TLC, an Anchorage clinic that cares for sick and injured birds. Native dancers will also perform at the event, which raises funds Bird TLC and the American Bald Eagle Foundation.
The weekend concludes with dinner, dancing and entertainment during the Saturday evening Alaska Bald Eagle Festival banquet.
For festival schedules and ticket information, visit www.baldeagles.org.