‘These Eagles Are More Than Just a Symbol’
LAKE HEMET, Calif. — The bone-cold rain didn’t keep the regulars from rising early on a Saturday, braving winding mountain roads and thick fog, to wade through muddy lake beds, binoculars in-hand, searching.
About 150 Southern Californians showed up to count bald eagles at six inland lakes, part of a little-known federal program that’s been running for 39 years.
“The level of interest is really extraordinary,” said Ann Bowers, a wildlife biologist at the United States Forest Service who has been leading the Lake Hemet count for the past three years.
“These eagles are more than just a symbol,” she added. “They’re very faithful to their territories, they’re monogamous, they experience the same kind of challenges that we do in some ways.”
People are eager to see this national icon, if only for a moment, Dr. Bowers said: “Sometimes people get emotional.”
At this time of year, bald eagles are settling in at lakes like this one across the region. The eagles, which mate for life, are primarily fishers.
Visitors at six lakes in the San Bernardino National Forest and two California state parks come with notebooks, cameras and spotting scopes. The forest service keeps the public about a quarter mile away from nesting sites; land adjacent is closed off, so that eagles won’t feel threatened and abandon their young.
On a recent cool morning here, mallards flew overhead, pelicans swam on the lake, coots picked bugs out of the mud, and a lone doe sauntered through tall grass. A half dozen birders looked on as a pair of nesting eagles traded places before stretching their wings over the misty waters, snagging a fish.
At nearby Big Bear Lake, elementary students and skiers and snowboarders often turn up for the count. Workshops and slide shows mix education with entertainment, and participants get a chance to assist in the field.
This year, 15 bald eagles were spotted: 10 adults, three juveniles and two chicks, month-old youngsters who hatched live on a webcam in February. While 15 eagles may not sound like a lot, this species has been a surprising conservation success in a state suffering droughts and sprawling metropolises.
Fifteen years ago, most bald eagles were winter residents, arriving inland during the January through August mating seasons, eagles follow the paths of migratory waterfowl.
But lately, eagle numbers are a bit down. “In a typical winter, I usually see three to four eagles between my house and work,” said Robin Eliason, the forest service biologist who has led the overall program since 1989. But lately, “I haven’t seen any of those eagles.”
The decline could be due to warmer winters, she added. Eagles find more prey on these lakes when it’s colder. An onslaught of severe weather hasn’t helped, either: the state has suffered a long drought sandwiched between torrential rain and inland flooding, plus the worst wildfires in California’s 167-year-history.
Bald eagles are historically more Californian than most Hollywood stars. They were brought to the brink of extinction in the 1970s, victims of the pesticide DDT, which killed thousands of birds.
California’s population hung on in the Channel Islands, a rocky archipelago off the coast of Los Angeles, where dozens were relocated for breeding and release programs throughout the 1980s. Nesting pairs have since spread across the state. In 1977, bald eagles nested in eight of the state’s 58 counties. Today, they are found in 41 counties.
The Fish and Wildlife Service’s main recovery goal was a minimum 800 breeding pairs in seven Western states. The agency believes it has achieved twice that amount, roughly 1,000 in California and 10,000 such pairs in other Western states.
California’s bald eagles have been seen as far as Northern Canada, 2,000 miles away, before returning home. It’s hard for a bird to pass up the state’s temperate clime and stable prey sources. Weighing between 4 to 8 ounces at birth, bald eagles can reach 40 years old in the wild. (In 2015, a tagged eagle died at 38 years old in New York State.)
Many of the birds here are residents, while others fly in every year to escape winter elsewhere and then leave, which makes them truly snowbirds.
Removed from the threatened and endangered species list in 2007, although still endangered in California, these eagles continue to be protected by federal and state agencies. It’s illegal to own so much as a bald eagle feather.
For bird nerds and eagle maniacs interested in seeing these living symbols of American, Dr. Bowers suggests simple tips.
“Remain at a respectable distance,” she said. “Bald eagles do become agitated when people are close and they’re in breeding season. Have binoculars. It wouldn’t hurt to not wear bright clothing.”
“And bring a lawn chair. People love these birds.”