After the long dry summer and nearly as dry fall, the rains have returned. With the added moisture, the stream and river levels are high enough for the ocean salmon to make their way back into the fresh water system.
I have not yet seen any of the returning fish alive, but they most surely have to be there because we have seen some spent carcasses float up along the edges of the river. Along with the carcasses, the eagles have been on patrol on their quest to clean up the salmon.
We are seeing three regulars along this stretch of river, two are full grown Bald Eagles with all their striking white head and tail feathers and an on almost as large, mottled colored eagle. The mottled one is most likely a ‘teenager’ at two or three years old and will grow his distinctive coloring in the next year or so.
The two adults are heard chattering and screeching at each other from tree tops as they watch the river, sometimes spending several hours in one spot. Other times they can be seen soaring together, dipping and diving in a full-sky dance. The mottled one keeps more to himself/herself and likes to glide under the bridge mere feet above the river itself, and is less cautious around humans and the Gator.
During this unprecedentedly dry November, the river is as low as what we usually see in September after a long summer.
We have been watching for the fall salmon that we can usually spot as they make their way to spawning sites, but when the river rose with the last rain it was too mucky to see anything. Then the rain stopped abruptly and the water level dropped dramatically. There had been reports that the salmon were showing up in good numbers at Fish Hawk Lake but farther upstream sightings have been few. We have not seen any of the spent carcasses of the spawned-out salmon this year, and consequently the bald eagles have not been a patrolling force on clean up duty (the sure sign that salmon are in abundance).
The forecast is for several days of rain that is expected to bring much needed moisture in a wide swath across the western states from southern California and well up into Washington. We are hoping it is not too late to add to the river for the ocean fish to get to their spawning grounds.
The bald eagles and smaller eagles also along with other scavengers like the buzzards and coyotes are busy with river patrol while salmon spawning season is in full swing. Slower running water in shallow pools become nests and breeding grounds for groups of the fish. Watching the water a person may only see the backs tipping out of the water as it looks like it is boiling with the 50 or more salmon in a nesting area laying eggs and dropping sperm.
At about 24 inches long, this salmon had been plucked from a group of fish in the shallows by one of the bald eagles and was laying along the water line near the bridge.
Judging from the color, this was a new arrival showing some of the bright red tinge that they get when moving from the salt water ocean to the fresh water rivers. This salmon was still pretty beat up by the trek to the spawning ground and losing half of his face while being plucked out of the river by the eagle sealed the deal.
As the multitudes of fish spawn out, the colors will darken as will their ability to stay alive. Within a couple of days the fish will be black except for the areas where their flesh sloughs off in chunks. The mighty salmon fight to the end.
The river keepers pick up patrols and scour the rivers edge as the fish perish, the bounty will only last a few days.
It was only a few weeks ago when I was posting pictures of the beautiful fall leaves and the quiet Nehalem River. After the week of rain we just experienced, most of the color has washed out of any of the remaining leaves and the river is running the full span of the bridge.
I know the ocean-going salmon are there spawning because the bald eagles are keeping a close eye on the river. While the river is high like this, they can only sit in the tall fir trees and wait when they are not flying the route of the river.
As the water begins to recede and the muddiness of the water clears, the eagles will once again have a chance to snag the carcasses of the spawned-out salmon. The eggs will have already been fertilized and the eagles are happy to scoop up the dead salmon keeping the water clean and healthy.
The two bald eagles have been guarding the river closely these days.
They can be seen swooping low to watch the water then soar high above the hillside in an air-dance frolic with each other. Occasionally they will sit for hours while they wait for a rain shower to clear, or for their wings to dry before taking off on another hunting jaunt.
These two adults have been a part of the area for several years now and prefer to hunt and rest together. We do not know if they are a couple or what sex they are. Sam showed up first, it just seemed patriotic to name him after ‘Uncle Sam.’ A couple of years later, ‘Yul’ showed up to complete the name, Sam and Yul…Samuel.
The sounds they make remind me of squeaky cupboard doors as they call from one tree to the next. Even when they sit close to each other, the squeaks continue.
Once aloft the familiar cry, the high-pitched iconic squeal, pierces the air as they protect their hunting route.
These birds monitor the river in anticipation of salmon as they complete their life-cycle of returning to fresh water after spending a year or two out in the open sea. The salmon make a harrowing journey back up into fresh water to their own spawning area in order to procreate only to perish in the water from which they originally were hatched. The change from fresh water to salt water was an easy transition for the fish, the change back from salt water to fresh water is impossible for the salmon and they die within a couple of weeks of entering the river. Carcasses of the fish float to the sides of the river after spawning, where the eagles pick the bones clean in short order.
After the wild weather we had last week the river has once again settled and is much more clear and smooth running.
Just a week ago, the river was so muddy that we could not see if the salmon were coming upstream yet this year.
The bald eagles have been letting us know the answer, they have been guarding the river diligently, so we know that the fish are there. Even during the rainy days, the eagles were seen hanging out in the trees above the river trying to dry their wings.
The warmer spring weather has been drying up the small streams and ditches that only run during the wet winters.
The ditch along the blackberry patch that Mike cleaned out with the bulldozer last year is still running, but the water level in the river has dropped enough to cut off direct access for the salmon parrs (baby salmon that have just grown out of their ‘fry’ size and before ‘smolt’ size when they head to the ocean). About 20 of these one to two inch cuties were land-locked and needed a little help to get to the river.
I had the pleasure of spending a beautiful afternoon dipping and scooping the little fish first into a cup then into a bucket before finding a shallow eddy where they were released back into the Nehalem. They are amazingly agile and can zip back and forth through the puddles quicker than I can focus, which is why it took me several hours.
I was able to get all the little creatures I could find moved to the river, but I will keep an eye on the ditch for the next couple of days to see if I missed any. Hopefully, the little swimmers will grow and continue into adulthood in the open ocean, it will be a long wait because they won’t be making that journey until they are about 4 years old.