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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Bald eagles grab spotlight at lake

A bald eagle carrying a kokanee salmon carcass in its talons cruises above Lake Coeur d'Alene near Higgens Point on Saturday, heading for a tree on the shoreline to eat its meal. The number of migrating birds peaks around the holidays before the birds continue their journey south.
 (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Nature’s versions of fighter jets are staging dramatic air shows these days above the waters of Lake Coeur d’Alene.

The bald eagles fly through every year about this time to feast on dying kokanee salmon.

Up to a dozen eagles at a time could be spotted Saturday afternoon soaring near the Higgens Point boat launch on the northeasternmost corner of the lake.

“They’re magnificent!” Coeur d’Alene resident Sandy Milliken proclaimed as a raptor swooped in for a fish. The eagle missed its target. Milliken, who checks in on the eagles most December weekends, knew better than to put down her camera lens. “He’s going for it again!”

The bird returned, its stubby legs pitched forward, talons wide open for the grab. In short order the dying kokanee was plucked from the lake. After a short flight to a nearby pine tree limb, the fish became sashimi.

Just like families making a stop at a favorite café on their way to grandma’s house, migrating eagles also take a pause from their journey south each year for the Wolf Lodge Bay fish feed. The bay is loaded with kokanee, a landlocked salmon. After releasing their eggs on gravelly nests, the kokanee slowly die. In their final hours, the fish are often seen flopping around haphazardly near the surface, making them easy pickings for the eagles above and creating great drama for crowds on shore.

“That’s incredible,” Wendie Brandenburg said, watching a pair of eagles hover nearly motionless in the breeze above her head. Brandenburg and her husband, Larry, took their three grandchildren to watch the eagles Saturday afternoon. The scene was a world away from the clogged parking lots and streets on the last full shopping day before Christmas.

“This is awesome, this is Idaho, this is what it’s all about,” Brandenburg said, clutching her 1-year-old grandchild, Mason Gardner, inside her warm coat.

A teeth-cracking wind blew off the lake. Snow clouds crashed into the mountainsides on the south shore of the bay. The Brandenburgs and other eagle watchers were cold, but the show in the skies had them resisting the impulse to return to warm cars.

Eagle after eagle swooped past while conducting lunch patrol. With the stiff wind, the birds barely had to flap their wings. Their bodies were nearly motionless, apart from the slight fluttering of wingtips, as microadjustments were made to flight paths. Occasionally the birds peered down at the crowd. They flew close enough that it seemed possible to make eye contact.

“They’re so majestic,” Larry Brandenburg said. “This is neat, really neat. I could watch them all day.”

The fish grabs were fairly exciting, but the best action often took place in the moments after the catch. Often, other eagles swarm in and make attempts to snatch the fish midair. This results in lots of screeching, aerial cartwheels and evasive dives, not to mention a lot of dropped fish – the forested hillside of Higgens Point, in fact, is littered with hook-jawed corpses of kokanee.

The eagles can be seen at Wolf Lodge Bay through the month of January. Although it’s fairly easy to stand below a tree where an eagle is perched, biologists urge people to keep their distance and avoid making loud noises. Getting too close prompts the birds to flee and reduces the chance they’ll return to the places easily accessed by those who love to watch the birds.