British Columbia

Planes, webcams, solar-powered trackers: All the ways to watch an eagle

David Hancock has been watching the Lower Mainland's eagles for 60 years. Now, he's harnessing digital trackers to get to know his beloved birds even better.

Fraser Valley raptor specialist wants to keep eagle-sharp eye on birds with tracking packs

Fraser Valley conservationist David Hancock spent the better part of a century watching birds of prey, and thinks a new device could sustain the eagle population for years to come. (Supplied by Hancock Wildlife Foundation)

"I'm a Luddite. I don't even like telephones," laughed David Hancock.

Yet the raptor specialist, who's been studying B.C.'s eagle population for more than half a century, says he's been forced to use modern contraptions all his life — for a cause close to his heart.

From aerial observation to digital live streams, Hancock's work has kept up with the times. Now, as the founder of the Hancock Wildlife Foundation, he's intent on outfitting his beloved birds with solar-powered tracking devices to find out where they go when they leave home.

The ultra-modern tracking project builds on round-the-clock surveillance technology Hancock spent decades working toward.

His first challenge, he says, was simply finding a nest to watch.

Hancock has fitted eight eagles with the tracking devices so far. (Supplied by the Hancock Wildlife Foundation)

In the 1950s Hancock flew small airplanes around the Lower Mainland, searching for signs of the bald eagle. 

"I surveyed the entire Fraser Valley. I couldn't find a single nest," he said.

But Hancock persisted, and as the eagle population grew, he started to place live-streaming webcams in trees throughout the region.

Now, he can spy on breeding pairs, watching them lay eggs and feed their squawking eaglets in real time.

"We pioneered putting cameras in eagles' nests," he said.

Hancock and his team started installing webcams a few years ago, and use them to watch eagle pairs as they raise their young. (Hancock Wildlife Foundation)

Hundreds of birds nest in the Fraser Valley each year, Hancock said, and he even knows of 19 urbanized breeding pairs in Metro Vancouver.

It's a far cry from 50 years ago, he said, when the bald eagle was nearly hunted to extinction in the region.

Back then, "Alaska paid a bounty of $2 for a pair of legs," he said.

"You'd go down in your boat'd shoot whatever eagle you'd see, you'd cut the legs off. And all the boats had a little white bucket.

"If they could fill the bucket, they'd be able to pay for their gas to go up to fish in the summertime. That just totally eliminated the eagle as a breeding bird in this area."

But conservation efforts spearheaded by wildlife enthusiasts like Hancock helped coax the birds back from the brink.

And shifting public attitudes, he said, have a lot to do with the booming population in the region today.

"We did change. We changed from persecuting them to adoring them. And they have responded."

Hancock estimates 35,000 eagles fly through the Lower Mainland each year — which he says could be the largest gathering anywhere in the world.

And more and more settle in to stay.

"They like to be here for exactly the same reason we like to be here," he chuckles. "It's nice weather."

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