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The Bald Eagles of Lake Couer d’Alene

The Bald Eagles of Lake Couer d’Alene

I live in eastern Washington state, less than an hour’s drive from the Idaho Panhandle, an area I think is one of the prettiest in these United States.  There are three huge natural lakes nearby in the Panhandle — Priest Lake, Lake Pend Oreille and Lake Couer d’Alene.  All are great tourist destinations, especially in the summer when the weather is warm and dry, providing great recreational opportunities including boating, water-skiing, fishing and kayaking.

Every year between mid-November and mid-January there’s a migration of bald eagles to Lake Couer d’Alene from northern Idaho and the Canadian Rockies (numbering a record 250 eagles this past year in the Wolf Lodge Bay area).  The eagles are there to feast on the land-locked kokanee salmon which swim into the bays and creeks surrounding the lake where they spawn and die during this period.  These fish tend to be small (about a pound or so), perfect size for an eagle to scoop from the water with its two inch talons, and there’s plenty of them around for easy eating.  The winter climate of the lake is mild and the surrounding hills provide plenty of large trees on which the birds can perch and rest (eagles often have preferred trees and even specific limbs to which they like to return).  So for two months every year Lake Couer d’Alene provides a massive freshwater buffet to which bald eagles seem willing to travel; only a small number of bald eagles nest immediately by the lake and most of those you’ll see around the winter solstice are transitory.

Bald Eagle flying over Lake Couer d’Alene

There are several bays in which the eagles tend to congregate.  The most accessible is the region around Wolf Lodge Bay, just off I-90.  Driving around this area and stopping in approved parking sites (don’t block traffic) will offer you a great opportunity to see large numbers of bald eagles, often very close (few dozen yards away) as they swoop over the water in search of fish or when they’ve had their fill perching on trees or socially interacting with other eagles.  It’s a magnificent display that I go to see several times each year.

An alternative way of seeing the eagles is to take a boat cruise (departing from the Couer d’Alene resort); these cruises take you by the best places to see eagles and provide a relaxing and scenic way to view the annual eagle gathering.

A brief summary:  Bald eagles are our national symbol and were declared an endangered species in 1978.  They have recovered nicely throughout the country, especially in the northwest and Alaska.  Female bald eagles are slightly larger than males and the pairs mate for life.  Adults weigh around 12 pounds, are three feet tall and have a wingspan of seven feet.  Their powerful wings can propel them up to 500 miles a day.  Adults having a distinctive white head and tail feathers (juvenile birds under age four have a uniform dark brown color).  Their white caps can make them somewhat difficult to see if they’re sitting on a snow covered tree.  The natural history of bald eagles in the area is well summarized in this attachment.

There’s something about seeing these large birds, graceful in flight that excites most people I know.  So if you’re in the area during early winter, take the time to check it out.

(Click on thumbnails to enlarge, right arrow to advance slideshow)

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