Winter's a great time to spot bald eagles in Southwest Idaho

Bald eagles winter in Southwest Idaho, and it’s a good chance to spot the magnificent birds of prey

pzimowsky@idahostatesman.comDecember 18, 2013 

Lots of bald eagles winter in Southwest Idaho and many of the places where you find them are easy to reach.

PETE ZIMOWSKY

  • Spotting an eagle

    • The bald eagle has a wingspan up to 7 feet. Males weigh 8 to 10 pounds; females are larger at 10 to 14 pounds.

    They’re much bigger than hawks. In most cases, you’ll see them soaring alone. Their wings look very broad, and their wingbeats are much slower than those of other birds of prey.

    When the birds are flying, look for the white head and tails of adult bald eagles, which make them easy to recognize.

    Young birds have a brown head until around age 4 or 5, when they mature. Many immature bald eagles are mistaken for golden eagles.

    • When scanning tree tops, look for a big, brown lump in a tree. What looks like a squirrel’s nest might be an eagle.

    • Don’t be surprised to see one on the ground picking at a dead animal.

    How to watch them

    • Fish and Game says to use binoculars or a spotting scope from a distance so you don’t disturb the birds.

    • Stay in your car if you can. Driver or passenger window-mounts for spotting scopes come in handy.

    • If you’re walking and spot an eagle nearby, watch the bird’s body language. If you are too close, it will appear uneasy. Remain quiet and move away slowly.

    • Be aware of closures in certain areas of refuges to protect eagles from disturbances.

  • Zimo's eagle score

    So far this fall, Zimo has seen:

    • Two bald eagles along the Salmon River between Riggins and White Bird.

    • One bald eagle on the Snake River near C.J. Strike Dam.

    • Two eagles at Lake Lowell.

    • An eagle at Lucky Peak Dam and another near Turner Gulch.

    • One eagle soaring above the Black Cliffs.

    • An eagle near the Idaho Department of Fish and Game boat ramp at Walters Ferry on the Snake River.

Two bald eagles perched in a tree on the shore of Lake Lowell within a minute’s walk of the Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge visitor center near Nampa.

It was as if the birds were on cue for eagle watchers there.

That’s really not the case, but bald eagles do like Lake Lowell in the winter, and it’s one of the easiest places to see them.

“That’s an adult on the top branch and a juvenile on the bottom,” said Susan Kain, visitor services manager at the refuge, which is operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Usually there are two or three hanging around the area, Kain said on a clear, cold day in early December.

Bald eagles flock to Southwest Idaho in winter because there are large stretches of open water on major rivers or lakes and reservoirs.

Open water means food, specifically fish, which is the birds’ main diet. Eagles also feed on sick and dying waterfowl. They will also eat dead big game animals if the opportunity arises.

The eagle-watching season is late fall through winter in Southwest Idaho and other parts of the state, and if you know where to go, seeing an eagle can be a sure bet.

The number of eagles can range from 480 to 832 in Idaho, depending on the year.

Although Idaho has some nesting pairs that remain in the state year-round, a lot of bald eagles migrate through the state from the north and head for places like Klamath Basin in Oregon and California for the winter.

Others will winter in Idaho, with one of the largest concentrations at Wolf Lodge Bay on Lake Coeur d’Alene. They’re attracted to the area because of the kokanee in the northern Idaho lake.

Bald eagles seem to be creatures of habit, and that can be good for eagle watchers.

They gather at traditional feeding grounds, wintering areas and nesting spots each year. Get to know those areas and you’ll score some points on your lifetime birding list. Or maybe you’ll get that photo of a lifetime.

Here are a some areas to try (there are no guarantees when it comes to the habits of wildlife, but eagles historically have been seen in these areas):

LUCKY PEAK DAM

Where: Bald eagles annually gather near the dam to fish. They also patrol the nearby Black Cliffs for carrion. Golden eagles can be seen on the hills above Lucky Peak Reservoir, near Spring Shores Marina, for example.

Getting there: Drive about 7 miles from Boise on Idaho 21 to the parking lot at the turnoff to the dam, or park in Discovery Park for a fee.

BOISE GREENBELT

Where: When they arrive in the area, bald eagles can be seen flying up and down the river from Lucky Peak Dam to Eagle. Traditional hot spots are the Barber Pool, Barber Park, the Main Street bridge and Joe’s Crab Shack.

Getting there: Take a walk or ride along the Greenbelt and keep an eye out for birds in the trees.

LAKE LOWELL

Where: Bald eagles can be seen perched in the trees around the lake waiting for a chance to pounce on injured ducks or geese. As the lake freezes over, small pockets of water are kept open by waterfowl. This concentrates the eagles on the small areas of open water.

Sometimes eagles can be seen perched in the trees near the visitor center.

Getting there: Take the Idaho 55 exit off I-84 and go south. Look for the sign to the refuge visitor center.

SNAKE RIVER

Where: Bald eagles can be seen along the Snake River from Hammett to Brownlee Reservoir. It can be hit and miss seeing them from the highway bridges. After all, you’ve got to be there when one happens to fly by. Duck hunters, who boat the river, have a much better chance of seeing the birds because they get away from the main bridges.

Getting there: Highway bridges at Grand View, Walters Ferry, Marsing and below C.J. Strike Dam are good starting points. Map Rock Road, north of Walters Ferry, is a good drive.

BROWNLEE RESERVOIR

Where: The lower end of the reservoir near Woodhead Park and Brownlee Dam is a magnet for bald eagles in winter, especially in January.

Sometimes a dozen or so can be seen perched in trees at Woodhead Park, which is open for year-round camping.

Getting there: Drive northwest from Cambridge on Idaho 71 to the reservoir and the park.

PAYETTE RIVER

Where: The highway along the river from Gardena downstream to Horseshoe Bend and then west to Emmett can be a good drive to try to spot eagles.

Eagles can also be spotted while driving the Banks to Lowman Highway along the South Fork of the Payette River.

Getting there: Drive north from the Treasure Valley on Idaho 55 to Horseshoe Bend and then along the river.

WOLF LODGE BAY

Where: Located on Lake Coeur d’Alene, this area is famous for bald eagles and is one of the best spots for high concentrations of the birds.

The annual migration has begun, and the number available at the bay is growing and likely will be more than 200 by Christmas, according to Phil Cooper, wildlife conservation educator for Fish and Game’s Panhandle Region.

The eagles are stopping here to take advantage of easy meals, as the mature kokanee salmon in Lake Coeur d’Alene complete their life cycle and die after they spawn on the submerged gravel beds in Wolf Lodge Bay.

Getting there: This is a long weekend trip from the Treasure Valley. It’s a day’s drive to Lake Coeur d’Alene.

Fish and Game suggests watching the eagles from Higgins Point or Mineral Ridge on Wolf Lodge Bay.

Pete Zimowsky: 377-6445, Twitter: @Zimosoutdoors

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