Monday, December 23, 2013

Bald Eagles at Lake Coeur d’Alene

December 21, 2013

We had perfect 40-degree weather most of the time for our winter-time foray to watch (and photograph) bald eagles at Lake Coeur d’Alene.

The “We” means Darlene, Nora the Schnauzer and me.

We traveled from Walla Walla on Monday (Dec. 16), stayed three nights at the Coeur d'Alene La Quinta Inn and returned on Thursday.

The trip, which I had scheduled more than a month earlier, had a slight element of irony: A few days before heading north, we saw 15 eagles along McKay Creek, about 45 minutes from home, where  I managed a few long-distance photos.

Then, the Friday before the trip to CDA, we saw four eagles at Hood Park, on the Snake River, on our way to Kennewick. I sneaked up to below their roost and snapped a few close-up shots. A few images captured the birds' launches and returns to perch.

So, on the long-awaited Monday, we left Walla Walla at 7:48 a.m. after stopping for Egg McMuffins, coffee and orange juice at McDonald’s.

We ate on the road as we headed north on Highway 12, through Waitsburg, Dayton, Colfax and on I-90 trough Spokane to Coeur d’Alene.

After 186 miles from Walla Walla, we arrived a few minutes after 1:30 p.m., well before the 3 p.m. sign-in time at La Quinta.

We took the first of five exits south from I-90. We passed the verdant North Idaho College campus and turned east on Sherman Street.

Despite our ignorance of the territory, we continued through a clean business district, with many taverns and restaurants, and made a dead-on connection with La Quinta Inn on East Sherman.

It resided about two blocks from the fifth exit from (and entrance to) the freeway.

We noted a sign before the freeway entrance: Coeur d’Alene Lake Drive. It went east parallel to I-90 and ended at Higgins Point.

Our research indicated that migrating eagles wintering at Lake Coeur d’Alene often congregate at Higgins Room, but we had not spent time there before..

It would be about a 10-minute, six-mile, drive from the motel.

“This is a perfect location,” Darlene said.

Then, still ignoring Higgins Point, we entered the freeway for an eight-mile drive to Wolf Bay.

In 2011, on our first trip to see eagles feed on Kokanee (small, landlocked salmon) when they expire and float to the lake’s surface after spawning, we spent all of our time at Wolf Bay, on the east side of the lake.

We didn’t see many people during that trip, and we got some good photos, which may be viewed at .

This time, however, a dozen photographers with tri-pods formed on the point between Wolf Bay and Beauty Bay.

We spent two hours along the bays and saw several eagles, both mature and juvenile.

We parked at the trailhead of a 2.5-mile loop to the top of Mineral Ridge. Nora and I had walked the loop in 2011. Snow and ice lay on the trail then.
We started up the trail again, but the overnight freeze had thoroughly thawed. Mud and pine needles soon clung to Nora’s legs and belly.
And to my boots.
We turned back before the first switchback and drove to the motel, unloaded the gear and, eventually, dined at the Iron Horse in downtown.

I had a salad and Darlene had a 7-oz. steak and homemade potato salad.

On Tuesday my continental breakfast consisted of cream cheese on a toasted bagel, a bowl of peaches, orange juice and coffee.

I sat with Nora in the room while Darlene dined on a waffle, OJ and coffee.

A 22-degree overnight left a tenacious frost on the truck. I couldn’t reach it on the windshield with the scraper, so I sprayed with de-icer and scraped the side windows.

We reached Wolf Bay before 8:30 a.m. and drove the shoreline to Beauty Bay and back. We stopped a few times when eagles, including several juveniles, sailed over the water or perched in or launched from pines along the ridge.


More photos later, I again parked at the Mineral Ridge Loop trailhead.

“We should hike the loop before the trail thaws,” I suggested to Darlene. “And Nora needs the exercise.”

“Just leave the keys so I can run the heater if I get cold,” she said.

And I did.
And she did.

We had a perfect day for it, with a partly blue sky and a temperature heading to 40-degrees.
Early prospectors made several hard-rock digs on the (mineral) ridge, and deep excavations in the basalt herald their optimism and intensity.

They found little or nothing of real value.

But the scenery across the lake from the western slope necessitated a long pause for appreciation.

For a late lunch, we drove back downtown and dined at Capone’s on Fourth Street.

We split a King Club sandwich of honey-bourbon glazed ham, roasted turkey, lettuce, tomato and mayonaise. Darlene had the green salad, and I had the chicken tortilla soup.

She sipped a diet Coke.
And I swilled a Blue Moon.

Then we made our first-ever complete drive along the lake to Higgins Point.

We saw more eagles than ever. More than a dozen circled over the point as I parked a road’s end.

And best of all, the layout of paths, mostly paved along the road, and the lakeside access allowed me to walk extensively with Nora and not worry about her getting in the way of traffic.

“Darn,” I muttered to Darlene. “It’s too bad we didn't come here before.”

I parked three times on the drive so Nora and I could stalk eagles.
We stood directly beneath trees  as they perched on limbs to rip apart an 8- to 12-inch Kokanee.

I followed Nora along the sections of the lake’s edge, alert for eagles that sailed majestically and eagle-eyed over the fruitful water.
I yearned to see one swoop to wrap talons around its bounty and carry it away.
And I saw several do that. Too often I missed the photo, or they were not close enough for sharp images.
We eventually parked at the large road’s end lot and walked a paved trail, maybe 10 yards from traffic on I-90, toward the tall, pine-covered Higgins Point.

The walk allowed wide views of the lake, water birds and eagles. I ended up with about 400 photos for the day.

After the usual continental fare early on Wednesday, we drove directly along the lake to Higgins Point. We saw eagles everywhere. Nora and I again walked to the wooded point.
I slipped and scooted all the way down the sheer 50-foot  wall-steep path behind a scampering Nora to the lake. Since basalt forms blocked passage along the lake shore, I aimed to find an easier way back up.
I did not worry long.
Five eagles perched with regal profiles in one cliff-side tree. They peered over the water with piercing yellow eyes.
A sixth one flew onto a limb, stood on its captured kokanee and set to tearing it apart.

From one spot by the water, I counted 30 dead kokanee among the rocks. Apparently eagles scorn dining on fish that wash ashore. They prefer to snare the fresher ones that expire and float to the surface.

The eagles have four-toes with long claws. Spines line beneath the toes so they can firmly grip fish and carry them away.

Near the basalt formation. we found an easier way to ascend to the top of the point. Someone had placed a limb that functioned as a ladder on the slippery path.

We returned to the truck after two hours or so, and headed back to the motel for a break.

Darlene decided to nap while Nora and I hurried back for another hike among the trees and eagles on the point.

As I opened the truck’s door at the point, two massive yellow school busses and about 30 carloads of parents and teachers arrived.

I asked a woman who parked beside me if it was a field trip.

I was, two loads of first and second graders, and they would visit the point, she said.


So, Nora and I also took a break.

We rested at the motel for awhile before returning to Capone’s again for lunch. Darlene had left her scarf there, perhaps on purpose, and she wanted to retrieve it.

Darlene had BBQ Pulled Pork Sliders (four small juicy sandwiches) with a diet Coke, and I had half a Honey-Bourbon Ham Sandwich and a full bowl of the Chicken Tortilla Soup, with another Blue Moon.
Another Yum!

We continued north on Fourth, across the freeway and visited Costco. Darlene bought some stuff, including two shirts for me.

We spent that afternoon at Higgins Point. The kids and the adults still roamed the area but mostly east of the wooded point at the road’s end.

We left with another batch of photographs requiring more hours to process.


At 9:30 that evening, I walked Nora for an hour around the neighborhood before packing up to leave on Thursday.

We dined alternately again Thursday morning.

We made anotherl drive to Higgins point where I recorded a few more images. Then I bought gas ($2.85 per) and coffee.

We headed home a few minutes past nine. We took the long route, 210-miles, through Ritzville and Pasco, so we could visit the Country Mercantile’s Chocolate Factory.

It was worth the detour.

For more Eagle photos visit

Monday, December 02, 2013

Walking with Nora on a Gray December Day at Bennington Lake

December 2, 2013

A curtain of mist drooped from dark clouds to the east, appearing to touch the hills above the Mill Creek flow-control dam at Rooks Park.
It could be rain.
Or sleet.

Or snow.
Mill Creek’s light-chocolate colored current rushed across the weirs in two-foot high waves and boiled beneath the bridge adjacent to the Corps of Engineers’ project office.

The rushing water muffled the gentle sound of a Ford SUV that pulled up two spaces away as I opened the my truck door.


The wind jerked the door. I nearly lost it before grabbing it with both hands and easing  it fully open.

“Jump out,” I said to Nora the Schnauzer, and she did.

I intended to walk with Nora up to Rooks Park, turn south to Whitetail Trail and circle the lake, some distance away, along the edge of the wheat fields, below Bennington Lake Dam and along the concrete escape channel back to the project office parking area.

Depending on our choice of side paths, we could walk five miles.

Or more.
Or less.

I left the camera in the bag on the rear floorboard and locked the doors. I snapped on the fanny pack with Nora’s water and coat and a filled water bottle for me.
I wore two sweaters, one hooded, a windbreaker and wool gloves.
We strode upstream.
At least I did, albeit with a slight limp.

Nora raced on flashing legs, between stops to sniff.
The clouds to the east sank lower and darkened more as I walked. The wind chilled my face. My eyes watered.

We passed a bony, hide-bound raccoon corpse on the dark asphalt. Nora smelled it immediately, and I shushed her away.
"No, Nora, No!"
You know how that goes.
I couldn't smell it.
But I couldn't help looking at the dark eye-holes in its skull and the sharp white teeth in its hairless jaw. Jagged skin and bits of fur clung to the bones.

After 200 yards, with no chance of seeing herons or mergansers on the cascading high water, I stopped.

“Nora, let’s go back,” I called.

Ten yards ahead, she turned with a questioning look.

“Lets drive to the lake,” I said.

Mostly to myself.

Even with the pervasive noise of the crashing water, I heard her feet softly padding the paved path as she passed, ears flapping.

She swerved toward the corpse. I yelled, and she passed it without stopping.

Good dog!

Maybe half-a-mile later, we joined two other vehicles in the 100-vehicle (perhaps) parking area overlooking the lake--the muddy-bottomed very low lake that -- resembled a shallow pond.
Or two.

I studied the bright, light-blue patches of sky to the south and west.

We had a fair chance of not being rained on.

So, camera shouldered and fanny pack attached, I herded Nora along the trail in front of the dam.
Well, I followed her about 30 yards back.
Four mallards pushed wide, flat beaks through watery mud of the lake bed.
No other water birds battled the wind-buffeted puddles nearby.

Nora dashed along a narrow, cottonwood-leaf-packed path near the lake. Eying the bushes and trees, fruitlessly alert for songbirds, I traipsed along.

I stopped at a junction with another trail and lay the camera on a grassy spot while I removed the windbreaker and forced it into the fanny pack along with Nora’s coat and the water.

We continued uphill to a trail between a wheat field and a wide
thicket of thorny, seed decorated trees. The trail led toward a bare tall-cottonwood copse where hawks hunt and great-horned owls nest.

At least once-upon-a-time.

Two scraggly nests remained in the tall trees, but nary a bird did I see.

Then, in the distance, two horse riders appeared, at last something to fire at with the camera. Never mind that a bright patch of blue backlit the riders.

 As they passed, I guessed they were two young women or perhaps high-school girls.

Later, when I processed the photos,  I decided they could be a mother and a daughter.

I  also processed one image with HD software, just for the practice. Interesting? Perhaps?

Anyway, Nora and I plodded on to the lake and detoured briefly northward,  through a pine thicket that long-eared owls inhabited a few months ago.

Nothing, not even the usual owl droppings.

Soon after that, from a bluff looking south across the lake and dam, a squall appeared to be building way off  to the south, although an impressive burst of sunlight appeared through the clouds closer to the west.
I processed one sunlight burst image with HD. Also Interesting, but...?
Hummm! At least I could see my truck in it.

So, we turned south to a damp lakeside trail.

On the south-side bluff overlooking the lake,  I met Esther Wofford. Her outdoor photos frequently appear in the WW Union-Bulletin.

I didn’t recognize her from a distance because she played toss the tennis ball only one of her two beautiful red setters. And she carried no camera.

Alas, one of the dogs died over the summer.
And she probably realized that few, if any, self-respecting owls, herons, etc., would show their beaks around the lake on such a day.

I followed Nora the rest of the way back to the truck. She continued to madly dash about with ears flapping, pursuing scents like a bloodhound. Once she scared up about 20 thundering quail, and I had to insist she stop sniffing around in circles and "C'mon. Let's Go."

So, we made it home in time for steaming French-press coffee and chocolate chunk Safeway cookies (for me and Darlene) and kibbles and low-salt green beans for Nora.
Love those green beans, right?
Then we stood in the door for a few minutes and watched snow or sleet bounce from the front steps and the sidewalk.

Check for more photos.