If Ben Franklin had gotten his way in 1782, we might be going on special cruises to watch the turkeys strut their stuff. As it is, the eagle remains the national bird, and people are waiting around to watch it glide across the sky in winged glory.
Late December marks a peak time for bird watching in general, since resident birds are easier to spot on naked branches and by backyard feeders. But there's one spectacle you won't get to enjoy in your back yard, and that's fishing bald eagles. As the kokanee salmon in Lake Coeur d'Alene dies off after spawning, relatively large numbers of bald eagles come in ready to feast. And sponsored by various government agencies, the Watchable Wildlife Program in Coeur d'Alene will host a designated Eagle Watching Week from December 26 through January 1, which will offer people a special chance to see the majestic birds in action.
The three federal agencies involved -- the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the Idaho Panhandle National Forest and the Bureau of Land Management -- have been cosponsoring wildlife education for the last 10 years.
"It's one of the few programs in the country that has a partnership like that," says Beth Paragamian, a wildlife education specialist with the Forest Service. "The Bureau of Land Management has property out at Wolf Lodge Bay and the Mineral Ridge trail system, and they've helped sponsor this Eagle Watch Week for the past eight or nine years."
During eagle week the public will get a chance to enjoy the birds, as well as an opportunity to learn more about environmental and ecological issues related to the eagles.
The Mineral Ridge boat launch, located one mile south of I-90 along Highway 97, will host an open house for eagle watching and education. Stuffed eagles will be among the various features, along with wingspan banners and spotting scopes for viewing the birds.
"The eagle has made a pretty good comeback since the '60s," says Paragamian, who often speaks to groups of students on the educational boat cruises. Her talks focus on the migratory, nesting and feeding habits of the eagles. "The greatest threat is now habitat loss. The development that increases the fastest is usually around lake shores, because people want to live near the water and the forest, but that's the same habitat that eagles prefer. So we have to be careful not to exclude wildlife when we're spreading into natural areas."
Although the eagle remains currently on the endangered species list, it is, of all the species there, closest to being de-listed.
"The awareness aspect is helpful in the recovery of the eagle population," says Greg Tourtlotte, regional supervisor for the Fish and Game Department. "It's partly because of all the management agencies and local communities taking the necessary steps for the last 25 years, since the birds have been listed, to provide security over nesting and important feeding areas, like lake Coeur d'Alene and Pend Oreille. As well as security through their migration routes."
Despite the recent recovery of the eagle population, habitat conservation still remains a concern. In Coeur d'Alene, urban development has taken over some areas of shallow, gravelly shoreline of the lake which are ideal for the kokanee salmon.
"If the kokanee can't survive, the eagles won't return either," says Paragamian. "Right now, though, Wolf Lodge Bay and Beauty Bay still seem to have the best habitat for the kokanee."
In spite of the concern, a recent Coeur d'Alene area count shows a solid 61 eagles as of two weeks ago -- an increase relative to past years -- so those hoping to catch sight of a wide wingspan during the eagle week are in luck. Seeing the birds sometimes makes it easier for people to emphasize with the man-made problems they face.
"Integral for getting conservation support is making sure you have an informed public that knows about and supports the needs of the birds," says Cooper. "Programs like these are important for developing that kind of support and awareness in the public."
In terms of the public's role in habitat conservation, Paragamian recommends preserving the undeveloped areas of personal property for wildlife, keeping large trees available for the eagles, and being active in some kind of conservation group.
"Everything fits together like a puzzle," says Paragamian. "If you mess with one piece, pretty soon you don't see the whole picture. It's a hard line between knowing what the issues are and doing something about it. Knowledge is out there in the general public, but we try to foster action through natural curiosity and excitement, so people will act in ways that will value wildlife."
& & & lt;i & At Higgins Point, Mineral Ridge Boat Ramp and Mineral Ridge trail head, representatives from the Fish and Game Department, as well as other federal agencies, will be available to answer questions and assist in bird watching from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. during Eagle Watching Week, which runs through January 1. The Coeur d'Alene resort has two-hour-long bird watching cruises on December 30-31 and January 6-7 from 1 to 3 p.m. Reservations required. Tickets: $13.75; $12.75, seniors; $8. 75, children 6-12. Call: (208) 765-4000. For general information call the Fish and Game Department: (208) 769-1414. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &