Recently at dusk, a bald eagle patrolling Odell Lake began a descent. As the eagle neared the water’s surface, it extended its talons and snatched a writhing fish. One by one, three additional bald eagles swooped from their perches in nearby pine trees, all intent on stealing the fish from its captor. With nimble wing work, the bald eagle evaded the robbers and disappeared into a Douglas fir with its dinner intact.
During this time each year — typically mid-October through early November — bald eagles and other birds of prey congregate at several Central Oregon high lakes and bodies of water, which include Wickiup Reservoir. The most popular, for both raptors and bird-watchers, is Odell Lake, where its ample, self-sustaining kokanee population reproduces in the creeks that feed into the lake. Trapper Creek, located on Odell Lake’s northwest shore by Trapper Creek Campground, is a particularly popular spawning site, where females lay eggs and males jockey for fertility rights. Both sexes turn a deep orange and the males acquire humps in their backs and their mouths become aggressive hooked beaks.
“With kokanee, there are (typically) so many of them, they’re spawning all over the place,” said Erik Moberly, a fish biologist at Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “It’s just a free-for-all. Some bigger ones will come in there and rule the nest. It can be pretty chaotic.”
Unpredictable kokanee spawning periods
Creek mouths are popular spawning sites for other resident fish at Odell Lake. Bull trout, for example, spawn in Trapper Creek during the second half of September and early October. The kokanee, which are land-locked sockeye salmon that were introduced to Odell Lake decades ago, begin spawning in their second or third year, Moberly said.
The spawning phase is irregularly timed. A number of factors, including lake temperature and daylight, create an unpredictable reproductive ebb and flow each autumn, he said. Justin Ditgen, the assistant manager at Odell Lake Lodge & Resort and an avid fisherman, suspects the height of kokanee spawning — and bald eagle viewing — is still to come.
“There are usually dozens of bald eagles by now,” Ditgen said.
The thick forest of mountain hemlock and Douglas fir provides bald eagles ideal vantage points to spot fish, which make up the majority of their diet, said Joan Kittrell, the district wildlife biologist for the Crescent Ranger District.
Odell Lake is home to an unknown number of resident bald eagles, whose winter population is bolstered by others migrating from Alaska and Canada.
During a bald eagle count on a single day in January each year, the U.S. Forest Service tabulates between 12 and 40 of them. Eight known nests are situated around Odell Lake, Kittrell said. The lake, which doesn’t freeze over, provides the birds’ fishy sustenance throughout the winter. With no predators, the birds sleep in sheltered roost trees and spend their days scouring the lake, propped up by 5- to 7-foot wingspans like avian sentinels.
In spring, the monogamous birds find their mates and reproduce in the territories they’ve hashed out with other bald eagles. In autumn, the raptors feast on the trout and salmon runs, whose arrival they announce to one another with a complex system of chirps, calls and behavioral cues, Kittrell said.
“It’s more of a ‘I’m heading this way because there’s lots of fish’ kind of thing,” she added with a chuckle.
Visitors should not enter Trapper Creek or otherwise bother the self-sustaining kokanee population, several authorities said. ODFW prohibits angling in Trapper Creek. As for the bald eagles, “keep your distance and use your binoculars when possible. Don’t get so close they have to fly off,” Kittrell said, adding that some eagles are more easily ruffled than others.
“Some don’t care. They’ll just watch you if you’re there,” she said.
In the third week of October 2016, the kokanee run was in full swing at Trapper Creek. Several dozen bald eagles crowded their piny perches or scored fish from the lake and creeks. Fish heads, tails and guts rained from above, littering trails. One unlucky bird-watcher was showered with the white scat that bald eagles excrete in a bowing motion.
This year, while fewer bald eagles have been sighted at Odell Lake, people are nonetheless making the trip in the hope of catching the feeding frenzy in full swing.
During a recent road trip, David and Meladee Beeson stopped off to view the bald eagles and the kokanee. Meladee is particularly fond of Odell Lake, where she spent numerous childhood moments with her family in nearby lakeshore cabins. The two have had less-than-picturesque encounters with bald eagles at their Silverton sheep farm, where the raptors sometimes try to fly away with tiny lambs. On one occasion, David interrupted an eagle trying to scare a ewe from its young by flapping its impressive wingspan. David was eventually able to shoo it away. Standing on the footbridge that straddles Trapper Creek, the Beesons were free to appreciate the birds without worrying about their herd.
“Oh, look, there’s one there!” David said. He pointed to a particularly large bald eagle gliding overhead.
“It’s magnificent,” Meladee said. Nearby, pairs of mallards floated above scores of kokanee, their webbed feet churned against the clear water’s current.
With quick bobs of their heads, the ducks made easy snacks of the kokanee eggs, which mix with the creek’s bottom and resemble wheat-colored peas. Further downstream, white ripples marked the spot of the latest tussle between male kokanee, one of which bit another’s tail fin and dragged it away. The fertilized eggs will hatch in the spring before the baby kokanee swim to the lake to form schools.
“I can hear (the bald eagles) talking in the trees,” said David. “It’s so neat to hear.”
The next day’s dawn feeding was ushered in by the bald eagles’ high-pitched, irregular calls. Several took turns gliding above the creek, whose course punctuates a several-mile-long corridor in the moss-strewn forest. One bald eagle made several aggressive swoops at an unwelcome raptor that may have been a golden eagle or a juvenile bald eagle. Steller’s jays and gray jays, which perched in nearby trees, were left alone.
Dan Grieser, 69, and his daughter Rebecca Grieser, 26, both of Bend, arrived shortly after dawn as the clouds gave way to drizzle. Grieser, a member of the East Cascades Audubon Society, first visited last fall after reading about the spectacle in the guidebook “Bend, Overall: 50 Places to Discover Within an Hour of Bend,” by Scott Cook. He wanted to share the moment with his daughter, who has a degree in zoology and whose bird lists are far longer than her father’s.
“We spent quite a bit of time walking the trails,” Dan said. “The birds are pretty flighty, so you have to be careful not to spook them.”
With a professional-grade digital camera, he clicked off some photos of mallards “floating under the bridge, flipping up ringlets of sediment,” he said. In all, the pair spotted a variety of birds, including 11 individual bald eagles, three mallards, 37 common merganser ducks and three American dippers.
A hobbyist, Grieser keeps his digital images in a large library and occasionally prints and frames them. The money shot — a bald eagle extracting a kokanee from the water — eluded him, however.
“Those birds are a little tricky to capture when they’re flying. But I got a nice one of an eagle landing in a tree,” he said, adding that he’s hopeful more bald eagles will arrive for a kokanee spawning that may be yet to come in full force. “It’s mostly for my edification.”
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