Steamboat Springs As the wind howled and the snow quickly piled up Friday morning, it seemed a little crazy that Libbie Miller continued her slow drive into South Routt County.
Behind her, multiple cars had slid off the road into ditches, and crews were mopping up a bad crash in near whiteout conditions on Colorado Highway 131.
Could she really spot three bald eagles on a day like this?
Turns out, with a good pair of binoculars at her side and a knack for knowing the difference between an eagle and a hawk from as much as 100 yards away, the answer was "yes."
“This still is a lot of fun,” she said from behind the wheel of her GMC pickup as she began yet another eagle count.
Starting at the same time, Miller and four other Colorado Parks and Wildlife officers took treacherous trips around Routt County to perform the annual winter count of the bald eagle population here.
They counted eight, which is fewer than in previous years, but it wasn't alarming because the count likely was affected by the poor visibility this year.
To put this county's eagle population in perspective, there were just two active nests here in 1997.
Today, there are 10 to 12, most of them located along the Yampa River as it runs between Steamboat and west Routt County.
In 1977, there were only two nests in the entire state of Colorado.
This country's national bird was severely threatened back then, largely because of new pesticides being used that affected the viability of an eagle's eggs.
But after years of protection and constant care, the bald eagle population is on the rise, especially in the Yampa Valley.
The majestic bird was removed from the list of nationally threatened species in 2007, but Parks and Wildlife officers here still like to check on them around the same time each winter.
Promptly at 8 a.m. Friday, Miller, a district wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, arrived at the gate that seasonally closes Routt County Road 18 in Stagecoach State Park.
She waved goodbye as terrestrial biologist Liza Rossi set off on the most unique route of the day.
After strapping on a pair of cross-country skis, Rossi was all smiles as she headed north of the state park on a 5.5-mile trek to Pleasant Valley.
Along the way, she would spot dozens of elk and two adult eagles even in the heaviest of snow.
Elwood the dog served as her only traveling companion.
It was a warmer journey in Miller's vehicle, which headed south on a route that follows the Yampa River to the town of Yampa and then branches off to follow the Bear River to the national forest boundary.
But a few miles in, the eagles were proving hard to find.
“We like to check this tree every year because the eagles like to hang out up there,” Miller said as she squinted through a pair of binoculars at a tall pine tree near Stagecoach Reservoir.
But a quick scan came up empty.
A few miles ahead, there was another tease.
Miller knew a cow had died recently on an area ranch, and the carcass was likely to attract scavengers, including raptors. But on this day, only ravens and magpies inhabited the tall cottonwood trees.
Apparently, too much of the nearby river was frozen over to attract a bald eagle this time of year.
It wouldn't be until Miller reached the town of Yampa that she got a breakthrough.
As the snow picked up, she drove slowly and scanned some gnarly old trees that towered in the distance.
Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
Just another raven.
But then she saw it.
A bald eagle was perched high above in a cottonwood tree, watching the snowstorm roll by.
Several more miles ahead at Finger Rock, Miller caught a glimpse of another one in the distance next to a large nest.
Then, near the Finger Rock Fish Hatchery, another eagle.
“That's a great sign,” Miller said, noting the nesting pair still was together.
The discovery was worth the long, treacherous drive.
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210, email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottFranz10
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