Bald eagles and kokanee in North Idaho are bucking the worldwide trend of deficits and declines.
Kokanee, those delicious land-locked sockeyes, are spawning in numbers higher than we’ve seen in many years at Lake Coeur d’Alene and even Lake Pend Oreille.
The bald eagles that feast on them appear to be delighted.
This week, eagles are showing up in the northeast corner of Lake Coeur d’Alene at a pace that hints at a record.
Eagle watchers flock to Lake Coeur d’Alene’s Wolf Lodge Bay starting in mid-November through early January to watch as baldies from a wide range congregate to fatten up on the spawning salmon before dispersing to God knows where.
On Tuesday, BLM wildlife biologist Carrie Hugo conducted the season’s second weekly eagle count, tallying a whopping 76 bald eagles in the Wolf Lodge Bay area. (She could count 26 from Higgens Point alone.) Her survey compares with 64 eagles counted on the same date last year.
That’s exciting news for birdwatchers, considering that this year’s count so far is higher than 2010, which was a landmark year for the eagle gathering: A record 254 eagles were counted at Wolf Lodge Bay during the BLM survey on Dec. 21.
Tuesday’s count indicated a big swing in eagle movements in just one week. The first survey of the season on Nov. 22 found only 12 bald eagles compared with 42 counted on the same day in 2010.
“Weather patterns may explain the difference,” Hugo said. “But I’m also hearing from fish biologists that a lot of eagles were hanging around last week at Lake Pend Oreille, where they’re finally having the first decent kokanee spawn in many years.
“That could have been a factor in delaying birds from coming to Coeur d’Alene.”
Indeed, kokanee spawning at Lake Pend Oreille gets under way a few weeks sooner than at Lake Coeur d’Alene, said Jim Fredericks, Idaho Fish and Game Department regional fisheries manager.
And this year’s Pend Oreille spawning numbers are perhaps the best since the big lake’s kokanee declined in the 1990s and kokanee fishing seasons were closed in 2000.
Although some research has indicated the bald eagle movements may not be closely tied to changes in fish populations, there seems to be a correlation recently.
“Kokanee spawn in the gravel shoreline at different areas of the lake, but the big concentration is at Granite Creek (southwest of Hope),” Fredericks said.
Fisheries staffers trap the mature kokanee and hand-strip their eggs and milt to expedite the spawning. The fertilized eggs are incubated in a hatchery.
“We’re having one of the best egg takes in more than 10 years,” Fredericks said, noting the recovery of the lake’s kokanee may finally be on a steady upward trend.
“We’ve taken close to 8 million eggs and we’re about three-fourths of the way through. The peak of spawning at Pend Oreille is around Thanksgiving, but it continues through mid-December.”
Once the eggs are taken and fertilized at Granite Creek, the kokanee are released back into the lake. Salmon are naturally programmed to slowly die after they spawn. Bald eagles are attracted to this free buffet as readily as pigeons homing on an old man in a park with a sack of bread.
“There were a lot of eagles hanging around Granite Creek last week,” Fredericks said. “About 100,000 kokanee are staging at the mouth of one creek. That’s less than the overall number in Coeur d’Alene, but the fish are more concentrated. The pickin’s were easy.”
This week, however, kokanee noticeably picked up their activity roiling in the surface waters of Wolf Lodge Bay.
It’s not clear how the eagles communicated that, but they do.
“The kokanee spawning will peak at Coeur d’Alene in about two weeks,” Fredericks said. “The eagles seem to peak just after that, when the most post-spawn fish area available. They’re on their way out and easiest to catch.”
Fisheries researchers estimated around a half a million kokanee spawned in Lake Coeur d’Alene last year, the most since the mid-’90s.
“This year should be the similar or better at Coeur d’Alene,” Fredericks said.
That bodes well for eagle watching.
The eagle numbers usually peak during the holiday break, perfect for families to pay a visit with binoculars and cameras.
Eagle experts bring out spotting scopes and information displays during Eagle Watch Week between Dec. 26 and New Year’s Day.
The watch is on to see if the kokanee attract enough baldies to break the 254-eagle record.