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In the Field

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Photo by Jay Mock Photo by Jay Mock

Bald eagles are back for the watching!

As consistent as the calendar, bald eagles have returned on schedule to Wolf Lodge Bay on Lake Coeur d'Alene. The annual migration of these magnificent birds has begun and the numbers of our national symbol available here for our viewing enjoyment grow every day.

    The eagles are here to take advantage of easy pickin's, as the mature kokanee salmon in Coeur d'Alene Lake have completed their life cycle and are dying after spawning on the submerged gravels in Wolf Lodge Bay.

    By nature's standards, this is not a long time event. Kokanee were introduced

to the lake in 1937 and discovered by the eagles on their normal southward migration in search of open waters and available food. Once the kokanee supply dwindles, the eagles will continue to the Klamath Basin of Oregon/California, or into southern Idaho and Utah.

    The bald eagle is probably the most widely recognized symbol in the United States. It first appeared on a coin in 1776 and officially became our national symbol in 1782. Associated with strength and freedom, the bald eagle is unique to North America. Concentrations are found today in the northwestern U.S., Alaska, western Canada, the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River and the Atlantic Coast of the U.S. When the first Europeans arrived in North America, there were 25,000 nesting pairs of bald eagles.

    While most today admire and appreciate the bald eagle, it hasn't always been so. From 1917 until 1952, over 100,000 bald eagles were shot in Alaska (prior to statehood) under the belief they were competitors with humans for salmon.

    Other of our actions, such as development in critical habitats and

pesticide use, inadvertently had negative effects upon eagles. By 1970 there were

only 1500 breeding pairs remaining.

The Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940 prohibited killing of eagles and first

protected the bird's habitat. In 1978, the Endangered Species Act listed bald eagles as "endangered" in 43 states and "threatened" in five states providing further protection. Reduced direct killing of eagles and the banning of certain pesticides have enabled eagles to exhibit dramatic recovery. In Idaho, the number of bald eagle nests has grown from 11 in

1979 to around 100 today. Twenty-eight are in the Panhandle Region. Bald eagles were down-listed to "threatened" in 1995.

    The bald eagle has a wingspan up to seven feet. Males weigh 8-10 pounds; females are larger at 10-14 pounds. Adults are easily recognized by their white heads and chocolate brown/black bodies. Young birds have a brown head until maturity at age four or five. Many immature bald eagles are mistaken for golden eagles. Fish, dead or alive, are the preferred fare. Waterfowl, small mammals, winter or road killed deer are also utilized when available.

    As with all living things, food, water, shelter and space are the essential elements of an eagle's habitat. If any one of these are missing or unavailable, eagles will not be present. When areas north of us freeze, making fish unavailable, the eagles head our way.

    Also necessary are suitable large trees for perching sites, foraging, and resting. They require variable amounts of security from disturbance. Some become tolerant of human presence, others are easily disturbed.

    Bald eagle nests are among the largest in the world. A pair of eagles, mated for life, will add material to their nest annually. Nests can reach up to eight feet across and 10 feet deep. One nest on Lake Erie in Ohio weighed several tons when it fell from a tree in a windstorm.

    Mature eagles normally lay two eggs, sometimes three, rarely four. Eggs are

laid in late February or early March and hatch following 35 days of incubation by both male and female adults. One successfully fledged bird per nest per year is the norm, because often one nestling will out-compete another for food and the weaker will not survive. However, on occasion more than one bird successfully leaves the nest and takes flight.

    To observe eagles on Coeur d'Alene Lake, travel to Higgins Point or Mineral

Ridge on Wolf Lodge Bay. Higgin's point is probably the safest place to view from, as there are few pullouts and numerous blind corners on the Mineral Ridge side of the bay.

    To avoid disturbing the birds, please use the following precautions. Use binoculars or spotting scopes so you may view details without the need to be close. Vehicles disturb eagles less than walking people do, so parking safely off the road and viewing with binoculars is a good method. Watch the bird's body language. If you are too close, it will appear uneasy. Remain quiet and move slowly. It is illegal and unsafe to stop on a public roadway, so please use turnouts or parking lots to view eagles.

    The daily life of an eagle in Wolf Lodge includes a dawn flight from a night-time roost over a mile away. Feeding activity begins upon arrival at the lake and continues throughout the early morning. Eagles will locate a fish from the air or a perch, glide over the water, and grab the fish with

sharp talons. Returning to a feeding perch in a tree, the eagle tears pieces off with its beak to eat the fish. Feeding slows at mid-day, then resumes late afternoon before the flight back to the roost.

    Eagle numbers will peak between Christmas and New Year's. The Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the Audubon Society join together to sponsor "Eagle Watch Week" at the Mineral Ridge Boat ramp. Every day from December 26 through January 1, personnel will be on hand from 10:00 am until 4:00 pm with spotting scopes and information about eagles. Bring your thermos full of hot chocolate and

make a day of viewing a magnificent bird and national symbol...a sight that few

in the country have an opportunity to view at such a close range.

    Eagles, both bald and golden, are found in several areas along the Clark Fork River all the way from Trestle Creek into Clark Fork and beyond. “Just the other day I watched three juveniles and two adults flying near Trestle Creek,” said J.J. Scott, Conservation Officer for Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game. “And there were four more adults in the trees.” Scott says eagles can often be found perched in the trees at the campground there. Good viewing spots include the boat launch at Trestle Creek and, going toward Sandpoint, the pull out just past the Trestle Creek Inn.

    Eagles can also be viewed frequently near Denton Slough. Approximately one mile past the Samowen turn-off (headed east) is a pull out where you can view them safely.

    Boaters can look for eagles at the mouth of Granite Bay, where Scott says as many as 20 to 30 birds nest. Annual bald eagle counts for the area have shown upwards of 50 birds living locally.

    In the winter, watch for both bald and golden eagles feeding on road kill at the side of the highway.   

    Mike Kranzler photographed this mature bald eagle along the Clark Fork River near Noxon.


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Phil Cooper

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