It’s 7 a.m., and six bald eagles are circling over Wolf Lodge Bay.
In the weak winter light, the snowy landscape has the starkness of a black-and-white photograph. The eagles are gliding silhouettes that bring to mind adjectives like “majestic” and “regal.”
But the aerial display is about a practical matter – breakfast. With eyes nearly as large as human eyes, and vision at least four times as keen, the bald eagles are scanning the surface of Lake Coeur d’Alene.
“All raptors have exceptional eyesight,” said Carrie Hugo, a U.S. Bureau of Land Management wildlife biologist. “They’re looking for movement on the water.”
With a sudden swoop, an eagle skims the water, but leaves with empty talons. No kokanee salmon this time around.
The late run of kokanee in Wolf Lodge Bay is the main draw for the bald eagles, which are migrating south from Canada in search of open water. Some will winter in Oregon’s Klamath Basin. Others will head to Utah, Colorado or New Mexico. But along the way, the eagles feast on the oil-rich kokanee, gobbling up five to 10 of the quarter-pound fish daily.
“They’re like big sardines. … They’re good pickings for eagles,” said Jim Fredericks, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s Panhandle fisheries manager.
Hugo counted 89 bald eagles during a recent outing – a higher-than-average total for this time of year. She credits the rebound in the lake’s kokanee population.
Kokanee struggled after the floods of 1996 and 1997, but the numbers have improved in recent years, Fredericks said.
The fish spawn in Wolf Lodge Bay’s gravel beds. Eagles watch for ripples on the water that indicate a spawned-out kokanee is floating to the surface.
Even though the fish are nearly dead, eagles aren’t always successful at catching them. That’s why you see eagles tussling over fish, Hugo said.
“I like to watch the interactions between young birds and the adults,” said Hugo, who recommends daybreak and midafternoon as prime eagle watching time.
Fights also break out over the best perching spots along the lakeshore, with the dominant birds prevailing.
Eagle concentrations on Lake Coeur d’Alene typically peak during the third week of December, though the birds are usually visible through mid-January.
When their food source disappears, the eagles resume their journey.
During their stay, eagles help distribute the calorie-laden kokanee to other critters through messy eating habits. Ravens wait for scraps. Morsels that fall from tree branches where the eagles are perched provide snacks for raccoons and other scavengers, who carry off the skin and bones.
“I once found a whole kokanee right at the base of a tree,” Hugo said. “When eagles drop a fish, they don’t go down to the ground searching for it. They just catch a new one.”