The Gooding County “Eagle Tree” isn’t the spectacle it once was, but that doesn’t mean the congregation of massive birds is any less amazing, if one viral Facebook post is any indication.
On Wednesday afternoon, Yvonne Motherwell posted in the Idaho Birding Facebook group about her trip to the tree, a large cottonwood in rural Gooding County that plays host to dozens of bald eagles at a time in the winter.
“Needless to say, I was not disappointed!” Motherwell wrote, attaching several photos of numerous birds perched alongside one another.
Just over 24 hours later, her post had been shared more than 800 times. It’s clear from comments that other birders are familiar with the tree.
Motherwell told the Statesman via Facebook Messenger that it was her first time visiting the Eagle Tree.
“We just moved to Meridian in December,” she said. “We heard about Eagle Tree from some other birders we ran into at Hulls Gulch one day. That’s always the great thing about birders. Everyone is always so friendly and we all love to share good info or hot birding spots with each other.”
Though she’s been birding since 2012, Motherwell said she hasn’t ever seen anything like the Idaho roost.
“When we drove around the corner and I caught (a) first glimpse of the tree, I was floored!!” she said. “I couldn’t believe my eyes! I’ve seen pictures of multiple eagles in a tree in Alaska but to see it with my own eyes. I just couldn’t believe it! I couldn’t stop giggling and I just kept saying, ‘I just can’t believe this! This is unbelievable!’ ”
In her post, Motherwell estimated that there were about 40 eagles in the area.
“We tried to count but there were some that would fly out of (the) tree and then we would see another coming in,” she said. “There were also several in another tree nearby.”
Motherwell said she was surprised her post garnered so much attention.
“I love that people love and appreciate birds and wildlife! I mean, who doesn’t love the bald eagle??” she wrote.
History of Idaho’s Eagle Tree
According to Idaho Department of Fish and Game records, the eagles have roosted in that spot for 10 or 15 years, said Ross Winton, a wildlife biologist for the Magic Valley region of the agency.
“It hasn’t been as big a deal in recent years because numbers have been down,” Winton told the Statesman. “There used to be hundreds (at a time).”
So what is it about the spot that’s so appealing to the eagles? The answer is a little repulsive.
Winton said Fish and Game originally thought that the Snake River, which is about 2 miles from the roost, was the big draw for the birds of prey. Then agency officials learned that nearby dairies and hatcheries were operating a “mortality pit” in the area — essentially a landfill of dead fish and animal waste that seemed like a buffet for the birds, who often scavenge for food.
The pit is no longer operating, and Winton said it’s likely a major factor in the declining numbers of the birds in recent years. Another factor, he said, is North Idaho fish runs. When there’s good eating for the eagles up north, like there was this winter, fewer of them migrate south.
Still, there’s something impressive about seeing a flock (or, more accurately, a convocation) of bald eagles in a single spot. The phenomenon has been so popular in past years that neighboring landowners have asked Fish and Game to deal with trespassers and discourage media from disclosing the precise location of the tree.
With a bit of digging, it’s possible to find directions to the Eagle Tree. If you go, Winton urges you to be respectful of the birds and the private property they’re roosting on.
“It’s a really cool wildlife viewing opportunity, but I caution people to be careful of where they’re at,” Winton said.