For the first time in a decade, Utah's annual mid-winter bald eagle survey will involve only a sampling of the birds at 11 sites, state Wildlife Resources Division officials said Monday.
"We're going down to the so-called select prime survey sites because a statewide count is difficult at best, and we'll be using sites where we've traditionally found large populations of bald eagles," said Bob Walters, program head."We'll still do the statewide count every third year, as kind of a check on our counting methods," said Walters.
One of the survey sites in the Friday-Saturday count is Ophir Canyon, near the Tooele-Utah county line. In past years, up to 200 bald eagles have spent much of the winter in the canyon.
"We're looking at areas of regular, high concentrations," Walters said.
About 1,000 bald eagles, mostly from southwestern Canada, usually winter in Utah, feeding primarily on cottontail rabbits and jack rabbits. The state has only two known breeding pairs of bald eagles who spend the summer in Utah.
The counters are hoping to find more bald eagles this year in northwestern Utah, where populations have been down in recent winters due to flooding problems around the Great Salt Lake shorelines.
"In 1988, we were still reeling from what the Great Salt had done to the waterfowl management areas," said Walters. "But we may be coming back this winter."
The count, he said, is complicated by two things - food and weather.
"It was foggy in northern Utah last year when we made our count and it was mild throughout the West. We had a hard time in the fog locating birds to count. And, we may not have had as many birds moving this far south because of the mild winter," he said.
And, even if weather conditions are ideal, the birds will take off for other areas if they cannot find enough food.
Salt Lake-area residents who want to see the big birds, he said, don't have far to go. About 20 bald eagles have moved into the area near the Farmington Waterfowl Management Area, north of Salt Lake International Airport and west of North Salt Lake.
"We're lucky to be that close to our national symbol," Walters said. "They're quite a sight. They really are a majestic bird."