Bald eagles are congregating earlier and in larger numbers than last year for their annual feast of spawning kokanee at Lake Coeur d’Alene.
Carrie Hugo, wildlife biologist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, counted 64 soggy bald eagles Tuesday during her first weekly survey of the eagle-watching season in Wolf Lodge Bay.
The count of 64 eagles compares with just 12 eagles counted in the bay at this time last year, she said.
A record 273 bald eagles were counted at Lake Coeur d’Alene on Dec. 29, 2011.
The eagles attract throngs of visitors and photographers to the area, especially during the Christmas holiday break when birding experts host the annual Eagle Watch educational stations around the bay.
Eagle numbers can fluctuate dramatically depending on the lake’s kokanee population and cold weather that can freeze the bay as early as late December, sending the birds looking for other food sources.
Generally, eagles from around the region begin congregating in mid-November, perching on trees along the bay bordering Interstate 90 and swooping down to pluck lethargic post-spawn salmon from the water.
The numbers usually peak in late December.
The early arrival of eagles is perfect for the annual eagle-watching cruise boat trips to honor veterans and active military personnel, said Suzanne Endsley, BLM public affairs officer in Coeur d’Alene.
Two free cruises led by wildlife biologists will launch Saturday, each with the maximum of 150 passengers including 50 veterans or military members and their families, she said.
“We have lots of World War II vets signed up, so we’re thrilled at the number of eagles that have showed up to greet them,” she said.
Eagle-watching boat cruises for the public can be booked through the Coeur d’Alene Resort. The cruises start Dec. 1.
Hugo said she counted 58 adult bald eagles, distinguished by their white heads, and six juvenile eagles on Tuesday, noting that the birds were soggy from the steady rain.
“Visibility for juveniles on this rainy day was horrible, so it is likely I missed quite a few of them,” she said.
“Because the hordes of people are not out yet, there seemed to be quite a few at Higgens Point – 16, in fact, which is more than usual these last few years.”
Top viewing areas are from Higgens Point as well as Highway 97 south from the Wolf Lodge exit off Interstate 90 around to Beauty Bay.