While most of us think of birds migrating away from snowy locales like Park City to head south for warmer winter climes, one of the most famous bird species in the world actually flies to Park City and the surrounding habitat to spend winters here.
Bald eagles are found only in North America. In Utah, bald eagles begin arriving in late November and stay on until March before migrating north to summer breeding grounds in northern Canada and Alaska. During the winter, bald eagles often congregate in large numbers at feeding, perching, and roosting sites. They favor tall cottonwood trees along streams and lakes, so the river corridors near Park City provide ideal viewing locations. While they’re occasionally seen in Park City proper, the most reliable viewing spots are along the Weber River from Wanship all the way down Weber Canyon to Farmington and Willard Bays on the Great Salt Lake.
It wasn’t always so easy to see a bald eagle in this area. In fact, for much of the last century, bald eagle sightings in Utah and, for that matter, almost anywhere in the lower 48 states were rare. Despite their status as our nation’s symbol, bald eagles were pushed to the brink of extinction by the widespread use of the pesticide DDT, which began during World War II and continued through the 1960s. DDT, which progressed through the food chain to the fish and other prey eaten by bald eagles, caused the eagles to lay eggs with shells too weak to withstand incubation.The primary food source for bald eagles is fish, although in winter, eagles are opportunistic feeders and will eat road-killed deer, rabbits, or other carrion, making it occasionally possible to see the majestic birds along rural roadways. Eagles will also sometimes sit on the ice near open water, so look for them on the frozen lakes around Park City, too.
Fortunately, with the banning of DDT use in 1972 and the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, the recovery of the bald eagle is one of the happiest success stories in the conservation world. From a low of fewer than 4,000 wintering bald eagles in the lower 48 states in the 1960s, the population has grown to more than 13,000 today, with as many as 10 percent of those wintering in Utah. A small but growing population remains in Utah year-round. There are currently 11 known nesting pairs in the state.
Where to Watch
To get to the Weber River corridor, drive east on I-80 from Park City, and take the frontage roads from any of the exits between Wanship and Morgan (merge north onto westbound I-84 at Echo Junction). Look for bald eagles roosting in the tall cottonwood trees along the river. The best viewing times are early morning or late afternoon, when the eagles are returning from daytime feeding areas. Eagles are sensitive to human presence, so please observe them quietly and from a distance.