This week is the 21st annual Alaska Bald Eagle Festival, put on the American Bald Eagle Foundation in Haines. Hundreds of visitors come to town to witness the gathering of eagles on the Chilkat River for a late salmon run. This year, the foundation is allowing the public in a place where they haven’t before – the aviaries where the foundation’s feathered residents live.
“So here’s where the public has never gone before!” said Raptor Curator Chloe Goodson as she led a small group of people into the collection of wooden sheds where eight owls, falcons, hawks and eagles live Tuesday.
Hans, a Eurasian Eagle Owl, sqwaked as the group stood in front of his aviary. Before this week, a visitor to the eagle foundation would only see Hans if he was taken out of his mew by a trainer and brought into the foundation for display.
“So many people wanted to see all of the birds,” said Eagle Foundation Executive Director Cheryl McRoberts. “When we tell them we have 12 birds there and they only see two on perches here and two eagles, they want to see them all. It’s something people were not able to do before.”
Back in the aviaries, Goodson leads the group to Sara, a great horned owl perched in the corner of her aviary. Like a lot of the raptors the eagle foundation houses, Sara has a disability that means she can’t be released into the wild.
“She was probably hit by a car, like a lot of our other raptors, and sustained permanent wing injuries,” said Goodson. “And that’s why she’s here.”
Sara used to be one of the birds that the trainers could hold on their gloved arm and take in the museum to educate visitors. But she’s not comfortable doing that any more. Goodson says the new tours are especially important for birds like Sara.
“Because they aren’t getting out on a glove and presenting in the museum, so it makes it so we can have as much education value as possible,” she said.
Goodson says in some cases, the eagle foundation would have to give their educational birds to other centers if they weren’t able to display them to public.
“Yeah, we would definitely have less birds if we didn’t open up the mew space.”
The tours could also help bring in donations. Boston resident Betsy Delorenzo was one of the first members of the public to see the raptor aviaries. She says she was considering making an ‘adopt a bird’ donation to the foundation, but she hadn’t met many of the raptors until now.
“I think I’m sold on Hans,” she said after the tour. “He just has so much personality.”
DeLorenzo came to Haines this week for the eagle festival. She says she had never seen an eagle in the wild before.
“And now I’ve seen hundreds. It’s been amazing,” Delorenzo said. “They’re beautiful. It doesn’t even look real, it looks like a painting almost.”
McRoberts says there are a lot more eagles gathered along the Chilkat this year than there were during the festival last year.
“One person counted 55 eagles in one tree,” she said. “It’s crazy.”
The eagle festival events, including the aviary tours, will continue through the week. Events are listed at baldeagles.org.