Bald eagles have once again returned en masse to the borough landfill in Soldotna as part of their seasonal pattern of movement.
"Yes, they're here all right," said solid waste department director Cathy Mayer. "It's winter, so they'll be at the landfill for a few months."
The treeline surrounding the landfill is dotted with literally hundreds of these enormous birds of prey. Some people just casually admire the eagles while dropping off their refuse. Others come with binoculars or cameras and are there specifically to see the birds.
Eagles perch in tree near the Soldotna landfill.
Photos by Joseph Robertia
"We understand it's an attraction for some people," Mayer said. "It's an opportunity for them to see the birds up close."
At this time of year, the chances of seeing an eagle while at the landfill are unquestionably100 percent, but Mayer said there are a few guidelines for people to follow if coming to observe them.
"We ask that people check in with the attendant and listen to the instructions they give. We prefer people stay in their vehicles and stay off of access roads so they're not in the way of the loaders, dozers and heavy equipment," she said.
Mayer also emphasized, "Definitely don't feed them."
Despite her willingness to accommodate bird-watching enthusiasts, the purpose of the landfill isn't generally for sightseeing, and Mayer said given the choice she would rather the birds didn't frequent the area.
"The eagles are neat, but we have safety concerns, too," she said. "We try to keep the eagles out of the garbage so there's no problems."
Keeping the birds out is their responsibility, according to the solid waste permit issued by the Department of Environmental Conservation.
"We control what's being buried and how it's buried, as well as vectors like eagles, bears and other wildlife that may show up," Mayer said. "Our responsibility is for the health and safety of the general public, but also to protect wildlife."
What are these majestic creatures doing at the landfill in the first place?
According to Todd Eskelin, a biological technician at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, they come looking for free meal.
"There's just not a lot of food available for them at this time of year," he said. "Eagles aren't built for forest movements that would enable them to hunt squirrels and hares, so their normal winter diet consists of moose carcasses or really late cohoes spawning on the upper river."
Eskelin said the landfill covers up waste promptly, but the eagles still come looking to scavenge what they can.
Whatever they find and wherever they find it, the birds must do pretty well for themselves. Although they are federally protected under the Bald Eagle Protection Act, here in Alaska they are not threatened or endangered like their counterparts in many locations in the Lower 48.
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