Santa isn’t the only white-headed caller from way up north swooping down to delight holiday revelers.
Bald eagles, passing through as they migrate south, have congregated in large numbers on Lake Pend Oreille to feast on the carcasses of countless kokanee.
The birds of prey have put on a steady show around Bayview, Idaho, and Farragut State Park through the fall. Photographers are being rewarded with images of branches thick with eagles, like ornaments on a Christmas tree. Mature and juvenile eagles are in Scenic Bay, Idlewilde Bay and far across the water in more remote reaches.
“Bayview’s pretty remarkable right now because all of the fish that are dying are getting blown up against the shore,” said Phil Cooper, wildlife conservation educator with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
The lake’s kokanee population is rebounding as a result of state recovery efforts, and this fall’s spawning in shoreline gravel beds has left mats of the dead salmon floating in the lake and collecting in bays and around docks. This banquet explains why the eagle count farther south on Lake Coeur d’Alene has been slower to build this year.
“This year it’s beyond anything I’ve ever seen – literally miles of spawned-out salmon,” said Ralph Jones, owner of Ralph’s Coffee House in Bayview. “All the food they could ever want is right in front of them.”
A couple of weeks ago he went out on his boat and counted more than 300 eagles along the shoreline. It’s the most he has seen in more than 20 years in Bayview, giving the resort outpost a little extra boost after the summer crowds faded.
“This cycle has certainly made for an interesting new tourist attraction, you might say,” said Jones, who has an “Eagle viewing headquarters” sign in front of his business. “And certainly the weather this year has sure helped.”
Watching these majestic fliers pluck dead or dying kokanee from the lake reveals their true nature, he said. “They really are just scavengers. They’re vultures with pretty heads.”
And the resurgent kokanee fishery is providing ample food. Surveys last winter found that more than 1.2 million mature kokanee survived to spawn in the lake – one of the highest spawner returns in 40 years and about four times greater than in 2012.
On Lake Coeur d’Alene the eagles are still building in number in the Wolf Lodge area, where they roost in the hills above the water. The birds glide down at dawn for morning feeding, grabbing fish from the lake and retreating to a nearby perch to rip off pieces of flesh.
Feeding slows in the middle of the day and resumes shortly before dusk before the eagles return to the roost.
Popular vantage points on Coeur d’Alene include Higgens Point, the Wolf Lodge boat launch and Beauty Bay.
BLM wildlife biologist Carrie Hugo counted 66 bald eagles Tuesday in the Wolf Lodge area. That’s almost twice as many as last week’s survey, but it was about half as many as Hugo counted there one year ago.
Jones joked, “You know why the eagles aren’t at Wolf Lodge? Because they’re tired of you taking their picture!”
Eagle numbers here generally peak between Christmas and New Year’s. Once the kokanee supply dwindles, the eagles will continue their journey to southern Idaho, Utah and the Klamath Basin of Oregon and Northern California.
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