COEUR d’ALENE — A mother osprey circled her nest, her strong brown wings outstretched in the muggy morning air.
Although the passengers aboard a nearby Coeur d’Alene Lake Cruise boat couldn’t hear her shrill disapproval, it was quite evident the mama bird's feathers were ruffled about the human placing bands on her babies.
"She was vocalizing. It’s an alarm call. When you start approaching the nest, it’s a call like this,” Dr. Wayne Melquist told cruise guests. He demonstrated with a few sharp, short whistles.
"It causes the young to drop down in the nest," he said. "When you hear that, they’ll drop down. Then she’ll start doing more of a scream and then she’ll take off, and when she’s flying around she’ll be kind of screaming."
The banding only took a couple minutes. As the boat carrying the biologist gained distance from the Cougar Bay piling that houses the nest, the female osprey landed and found everything to be the same ... except now her roughly 3-week-old hatchlings were sporting a bit of metallic bling around their little legs.
"There were two young birds, they were just big enough to band," Melquist said. "Usually you want to band them as close to the time they’re going to fly as possible, but they got to have a big enough foot so it doesn’t slip off."
About 200 people, passengers and presenters included, witnessed the bird banding Saturday during a two-hour osprey viewing tour cruise. The banding is conducted to monitor these fish-eating lake hawks for a better understanding of their survival and mortality rates, as well as their migration patterns.
At least 100 pairs nest in the Coeur d'Alene Lake region each year, including the lower areas of the St. Joe and Coeur d'Alene rivers.
“Osprey are really interesting birds,” said Beth Paragamian, education specialist with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. "Our osprey come back in April. They spend the winter in southern parts of the United States, but some of them fly all the way to Central America and even South America and winter there for many months before they come back in April. The male will come back first and search out the site they nested last time. If it’s a male that hasn’t had a nest in this area before, he’ll search out a really good place."
A bald eagle swooped in to steal the show for a few moments during the cruise when it landed in a pine tree near Casco Bay residences. Cruise-goers snapped photos and enjoyed its beauty before it decided to move along.
“I liked that I could see it up close with the binoculars," said Rylan Braga, 8, who went on the cruise with his twin sister, Kamryn, and their dad.
While the osprey tour was an exciting opportunity to see wildlife biology and native creatures up close, it also provided an educational service. Representatives from entities such as the Inland Northwest Land Conservancy, the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality's Coeur d'Alene Lake Management Team and others discussed the many aspects involved in maintaining a healthy lake and ecosystem.
It was emphasized that people, especially those who like to fish and boat, should be aware of the osprey nests on top of pilings or on snags and keep a good distance so the nests don't get disturbed. Properly disposing of trash and fishing line were also points made because fishing line can easily mutilate or otherwise harm the osprey and other wildlife.
"From an adult perspective, I like the focus on the conservation,” said Rylan and Kamryn's dad, Troy, of Coeur d'Alene. "They’re educating people about what has to be done to conserve what we’ve got here. The more people that show up here, the harder it is to keep it natural. It’s cool that they do this to educate, I think that’s important."
The osprey cruise is sponsored by the Natural Resources Committee of the Coeur d'Alene Chamber of Commerce.
Cooperators include the Nature Conservancy, the Idaho Fish and Game Department, the Idaho Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the University of Idaho, the Audubon Society and The Coeur d’Alene Resort.
"It’s so interesting — it’s an Idaho native bird we want to help people appreciate, but on the other hand they do need some protection," said Sandy Emerson, a 40-year member of the Natural Resources Committee.
“(The cruise) has grown with the other groups that have come in to speak ... Those folks have kind of evolved to be part of the story. I guess we have a bit of a captive audience,” he said with a chuckle. “We can tell the story of the lake a little bit. It’s become very important to keep the water quality and let people know there’s a lot of people working on that.”