With warmer temperatures on the way, many visitors are just now starting to reappear around Moab. But one group of wintertime guests is getting ready to leave for the season.
Migratory bald eagles usually stick around the Colorado River until the winter thaw in March, and although they won’t be around for much longer, residents can still get one last look this season at the charismatic raptors.
On Saturday, Feb. 27, the Canyonlands Field Institute, Sheri Griffith Expeditions and the Moab Bird Club will be leading the daylong Eagle Float along the Ruby Horsethief section of the Colorado River. The mostly flatwater stretch of the river runs between Loma, Colorado, and the Westwater Ranger Station. While Amtrak’s California Zephyr line passes through Ruby Canyon, Canyonlands Field Institute sales and office manager Stacy Dezelsky said the area is otherwise quiet during the colder winter months.
“Aside from that, there are not a lot of people or any other disturbances, so it’s a really good place for the eagles to winter,” Dezelsky said.
Moab Bird Club member Marian Eason – one of five experts who will be joining rafters this year – participated in one of the first Eagle Floats in the 1980s, and she found the trip down the river to be a unique experience.
“The fact that it’s in February makes it different, because you don’t really think about people rafting (then),” she said. “It was cold, for one thing, but it was very peaceful and quiet. The only rafts on the river were the ones in this group.”
Eason was speaking just one day after she participated in a HawkWatch International survey of raptors in the Cisco Desert northeast of Moab. Although she saw just one bald eagle during the survey, she anticipates that others will be out and about along the river later this month.
“They are starting to move, but there should still be some around,” she said.
In past years, Eagle Float groups have spotted as many as 50 bald eagles during their trips.
“I think that people are really impressed with the amount of birds they do see,” Dezelsky said.
While there may be a few year-round resident bald eagles in southeastern Utah and southwestern Colorado, most of them are seasonal visitors who are drawn to the area’s typically ice-free, fish-filled waterways.
“They come down here in the winter, but come summertime, they’re gone,” said local birdwatcher Marcy Hafner, who is also joining the trip, alongside Eason’s husband Nick; field biologist Steve Kuhn; and retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Western Colorado Supervisor Patty Gelatt.
Participants will meet at the Loma Boat Ramp at 8:30 a.m., and throughout the day, the group will make several stops along the way to share their birdwatching stories. They will ultimately report their observations to state and federal wildlife agencies.
While bald eagles are the main draw, Hafner said that participants will likely have the chance to see other species, including golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, wild turkeys and Canada geese.
Anyone who can’t tag along on the Eagle Float can still dust off their binoculars and head out on their own to the river corridor along state Route 128 east of Moab, where bald eagles are a common sight each winter.
“That’s what you always look forward to on the way to Grand Junction,” Hafner said.
The Pack Creek corridor in Spanish Valley is another prime eagle-watching area.
“This year, they’ve been going up and down Spanish Valley Drive all winter,” she said.
Space on this year’s Eagle Float is limited to 25 participants. A handful of openings are still available, and anyone who would like to join the float can still register up until Sunday, Feb. 21. Registration costs are $145 per adult, $137.75 per CFI member and $100 per child 12 and older.
Anyone who plans on participating should wear thermal underwear, layers of wool or polypropylene clothing and lined boots; they should also bring wool hats and warm gloves, as well as binoculars, bird guides, day packs, cameras and water bottles.
Eagle Float returns on Feb. 27
What: Canyonlands Field Institute’s Eagle Float
When: Saturday, Feb. 27
Where: Ruby Horsethief section of the Colorado River, between Loma, Colorado, and the Westwater Ranger Station
Cost: $145 per adult; $137.75 per CFI member; $100 per child 12 and older
Information: firstname.lastname@example.org; 435-259-7750