Big Bird Watching

by DAVE TURNER and MATHEW HALL & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & Y & lt;/span & ou don't need a ticket to see one of the best shows in the region this holiday season, just a warm jacket. Bringing a pair of binoculars would also help.

"It's such a wonderful place to come," said Karen Reynolds as she stood on the shores of Lake Coeur d'Alene Saturday afternoon, her eyes scanning the treetops for movement and the telltale signs of America's symbol, the bald eagle. "There's one, right there," Reynolds said to her husband, Jeff.

"Those are better ones, over there," he said, directing her to another treetop overlooking the lake's Mineral Ridge Boat Launch, near Wolf Lodge Bay on the eastern end of the lake.

The couple from Liberty Lake has been coming out for the past eight years to watch the eagles.

"We usually come out on Christmas Eve day," said Karen. "Last year, it was pouring down rain and they were all hunched over."

On Saturday, a stiff, cold breeze washed over the point, following a wet, snowy storm that rolled through the night before.

"The wind today kind of screws up the fishing," said Jeff.

Just then, almost on cue, a large raptor swooped down, over the bank, talons at the ready, aiming at the shallow shoreline, less than 30 feet away. The hunter missed its target.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & M & lt;/span & igrating eagles have been coming to the lake since it was stocked with Kokanee salmon in the 1930s.

"That proves to be a good food source for them," says Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) wildlife educator Beth Paragamian.

Eagle watchers started to come out informally after that. "People been watching along this stretch for years," says Paragamian.

Truck driver Larry Delp of Spokane said he drove on Interstate 90, from Higgens Point to Wolf Lodge Bay, five days a week for years.

"Every morning during the season I'd see them, but I never had time to stop," said Delp.

He and his partner, Barb Price, said they wanted to come out for years. This year, they finally made the trip.

"We'd see it on the news and get excited about it," said Delp. "Three weeks ago, (Barb) suggested we come out." He said the first time they came out "blind."

"Then we went and got some binoculars," said Delp.

"Seeing them is so romantic," said Price.

Paragamian says Mineral Ridge is a prime location to watch the birds because it offers a shallow, rocky bottom where the kokanee lay their eggs in the final stages of their life cycle.

"Once spawned out, the fish begin to die and float to the surface, making them easy pickin's for the eagles," she says. "A lot of ravens hang around, too, waiting for the scraps." Other scavengers also wait for what the eagles drop. Rotting fish bones provide nutrients for the soil and water, to help feed the fry when they hatch.

"Nature doesn't waste anything," she says.

Paragamian says in the lean times only a couple dozen birds were seen. They followed a flyway that follows the Purcell Trail from Canada, south along the Selkirk Mountains range past Bonners Ferry and Sandpoint.

Now, she says, more than 100 of the birds take the brief respite yearly to dine on dying salmon before taking off to winter in California, Arizona and New Mexico. By the end of January, most have already left.

In the fall, the migrating eagles come back. The local nesting eagles, like all good snowbirds, have already left for the season for their winter haunts in Mexico, so there is no competition with the migrants. While the birds begin arriving in mid-November, the numbers swell about Christmastime.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & n the early 1990s, the area's state and federal natural resources agencies began to set up eagle-watch programs.

Volunteers and staff from the IDFG, the Bureau of Land Management, North Idaho College and the Audubon Society will hold a formal Eagle Watch starting on Dec. 26 and running through New Year's Day at the launch and the Mineral Ridge trailhead a mile down the road.

Paragamian says the agencies will be set up between 11 am and 4 pm daily during the IDFG's seven-day event. But she said it's better to come early, when the birds are fishing.

"Most people get the biggest thrill about watching them catch a fish then eat it, or two birds fighting over one fish," she said.

On Saturday and Sunday, the Idaho State Parks department will staff its own Eagle Watch weekend at Higgens Point boat launch, from 9 am to 1 pm both days.

Both programs will feature static displays, stuffed eagles and other raptors and volunteer speakers to talk to visitors. In the past years, between 5,000 and 6,000 visitors would spend at least a few minutes.

Paragamian says people from all parts of the United States and 15 other countries, from Europe, Asia and Australia, have also stopped in years past.

"They say they have never had a chance to see an eagle up close," she said. "This is a chance for them to do that."

Idaho Parks Eagle Watch on Saturday-Sunday, Dec. 22-23, from 9 am-1 pm at the Higgens Point Boat Launch. (I-90 to Sherman Ave. exit, then follow Lake Coeur d'Alene Drive.) BLM's Eagle Watch Week on Wednesday-Tuesday, Dec. 26-Jan. 1, from 11 am-4 pm each day. (I-90 to the Wolf Lodge Bay exit. Turn south onto Idaho 97 and go 1 mile to the Mineral Ridge Boat Launch.)