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On Bald Eagle Day, a glimpse of an iconic bird

Published February 9, 2014 9:44 am

Bald Eagle Day • Officials don't serve up carp at bay due to West Nile fears.
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Farmington • Andrea Galindo knew the eagles might be sparse at Farmington Bay this year, but she couldn't pass up the chance to catch a glimpse of her favorite animal.

"We still wanted to take that chance," she said. "They tend to carry this free spirit about them."

Her son, 8-year-old Steven Galindo, said he saw one of the majestic birds standing on the ice.

"I liked the beak. It was pointy," he said with a smile.

They are recent transplants to Ogden from California, and her husband, Ryan Smaha, said visiting the Waterfowl Management Area was a good chance to explore their new home.

"It's something different we haven't experienced," he said. "I do wish for clear, blue skies though!"

Chilly weather and ice weren't the only factors on the 25th annual Bald Eagle Day Saturday. Wildlife officials decided to skip treating the water to kill carp this year, so the fish feast that normally attracts hundreds of birds was missing.

The caution comes after more than 60 eagles died of West Nile virus. Though testing found the birds got the illness by eating infected birds called eared grebes, officials decided against running the risk that it could spread through avian crowds at Farmington Bay, said Bob Walters, watchable wildlife coordinator with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

"There are many things that to this point have not been answered relative to what happened," he said. Considering that mosquito-born illnesses like West Nile don't typically strike in winter, he said, "I think it's a huge mystery even at this point."

Dead eagles started showing up in early December, part of the more than 1,200 birds that typically fly down from Canada to winter in Utah from November through March.

Though it appears that new cases of the illness have halted since the departure of the migrating grebes, the symptoms are unusual enough that Walters said it's worth being careful.

"We seem to know very little, if anything, about how West Nile is transmitted from bird to bird," he said. "We're not going to bait them, so to speak, to lure them."

Bald eagles are unusually social for a predatory bird, he said.

"They really seem to like to be around others of their kind," Walters said. Most years they congregate on trees at the bay, calling out in their unexpectedly high-pitched voices and squabbling for food.

In contrast to the crowds that pass through in the winter, about a dozen pairs of nesting birds live in Utah full-time. As one of the driest places in the country, the state doesn't usually have enough of their favorite fishy food source to attract many more permanent residents.

But things are different in the winter, especially when wildlife managers draw down water levels to expose carp to the eagles because they are exotic fish that affect water quality by scavenging the muck. The carp buffet typically draws hundreds, said Amber Seely, of West Valley City.

"You see them fighting over fish with their wings open," she said. "It's pretty cool."

She came with Koni Dumas and Bill Jackson, friends from a walking photography group. The trio said they saw six or seven birds Saturday morning, a far cry from the flocks of different species Dumas said are more typical.

"It is sad," Dumas said.

Bob Nelson, of East Millcreek, said Bald Eagle Day is typically "a feeding frenzy up close," of osprey and golden eagles as well as their iconic cousins.

"It makes you wonder where they all are," said Nelson, who came with a group of Boy Scouts and friends like Doreen Espinoza, of Holladay.

Espinoza said she used to see eagles sitting on power poles or catching mice from her backyard when she lived in North Salt Lake.

"Seeing one is just in and of itself beautiful," she said. "It's our country's symbol. It's amazing."

lwhitehurst@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lwhitehurst