A count of bald eagles that reached an all-time high this winter in a study area along the Colorado River set the stage for a rewarding birdwatch earlier this month in Ruby Canyon.
A study group on rafts sighted five golden eagles and 22 bald eagles soaring above and through the canyons during a weekend "eagle float" sponsored by the Canyonlands Field Institute. Another three were also spotted along the 26-mile stretch, but observers were unable to determine whether they were bald or golden eagles.Miles Moretti, non-game specialist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said the mighty raptors were lingering from a wintering season near Cisco that was believed to have drawn up to 100 eagles this year.
Moretti said his official count earlier in the year included 60 bald eagles alone - the highest count since 1981.
"This stretch of river is becoming really popular. They're really concentrating here," he said.
Moretti helped federal wildlife specialists and a Moab raptor expert instruct 21 participants in the fifth annual float, the second bird count in the area conducted this year under auspices of the Canyonlands Field Institute.
The group enjoyed temperatures in the 70s, gazing into mostly clear skies and spotting 27 winged species, including a snow goose, currently inhabiting the river canyons between Cisco and Loma, Colo.
"As far as species, this is one of the highest (counts) we've seen," Moretti said.
He said the institute eagle count will be lower than previous years because of the warmer weather. "That may have them out dispersed more, out catching the thermals. We got started late too," he said.
Just before sunset the rafts were quietly guided close to the banks of a large, open area about two miles above the BLM Westwater Ranger Station near Cisco, the take-out point.
Dense with giant cottonwoods and bleached-out snags, the setting was the finale for the trip, a communal roosting area for eagles and site of a rare eagle nest - rarer still because it is in a tree.
Moretti said there are six or seven eagle nests in the state, and most eagle nesting in Utah is in cliffs. "I only know of four golden eagle nests in trees - one aspen and three cottonwoods - mainly because there's not a lot of trees in areas where there's no disturbance, and because of the abundance of cliffs," he said.
According to an institute fact sheet, occupied bald eagle nests were known in only 30 states as of 1981, and approximately 90 percent of known breeding pairs were in only ten states.
The tree nest above Westwater was first spotted last year by Marilyn Bicking of Moab, a licensed raptor rehabilitator who joined the Saturday float. Afterward, Bicking drove to Grand Junction to pick up a golden eagle that was scheduled for release to the wilds near Price the next day.
At the roost site, rafters were stirred by the sight of two bald eagles sharing a thick branch high in a tree several hundred yards inland. Ahead, two golden eagles perched in trees crowding the shoreline, one taking flight as the rafts drew near.
Two other golden eagles had been spotted separately in trees a short distance upstream, motionless and apparently unmoved by the murmurings and ruckus of clicking cameras and purring motors on the river.
The first sighting of an immature golden eagle came within an hour of the launch at Loma, about 10 miles from Grand Junction.
Throughout the trip, eagles lifted off from rock perches high in the cliffs above the river, spiraling higher and higher above the rafts, then disappearing over the ridge. Late in the afternoon, a bald eagle floated in wind currents high above the sheer canyon walls, at one point joining a golden eagle pair that put on a display Bicking described as a dance of courtship. They flew in formation, separating and coming together and flipping.
"The birds are having a ball today. They're really enjoying flying," Bicking observed.
"Makes you proud to be an American," quipped Don Kiffmeyer, one of four boatmen guiding the group.
"There was a lot of soaring, catching the thermals, and a lot of interaction among the immature birds, but not a lot of breeding displays," Moretti remarked after the float.
Another boatman, Jimmy Ferro, said, "I was really amazed at how many eagles there are. Amazed."
During a snack break onshore, four red-tailed hawks came up over a distant ridge, spiraling upward until they became spots in the sky. Two hours into the trip, 17 bird species had been spotted - from common ravens, magpies, starlings, rock doves, robins and American coots to the rare Prairie falcon and Cooper's hawk. Hundreds of Canada geese and eight varieties of ducks populated the stretch.
"Beautiful birds," said Jean Knight of Grand Junction. "You can't believe how wonderful an experience it is until you've done it."
Chris Erickson of Park City said he and his wife boat a lot on their own and have canoed Ruby Canyon before.