Magazine article Sunset

Cruising Close to the Bald Eagle

Magazine article Sunset

Cruising Close to the Bald Eagle

Article excerpt

Fierce-eyed bald eagles are finding their way back to Lake San Antonio. This reservoir in the rolling, oak-dotted foothill country west of U.S. 101 halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles is hardly the remote wilderness most of us imagine as prime eagle habitat. Yet every year a small but growing number of eagles make the shoreline around the shallow southwest end of the lake their winter roosting grounds.

This is good news for people whose only close look at an eagle has been the portrait on the tails side of a quarter. This month and next, you can join a special guided tour on pontoon boats to get a close-up look at these raptors.

There's no mistaking the mature birds. With a wingspan broader than most men are tall, the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) ranks among the largest birds in North America. Soaring over the green coastal foothills or wheeling just above the lake searching for fish, they are a distinctive sight with white heads and tails that contrast boldly with dark wings and bodies.

Even their call is dramatic: a harsh, creaking cackle that falls from the sky like shattered glass.

Lake San Antonio's eagles are part of a migration that brings several thousand bald eagles from as far away as Alaska and Saskatchewan into Western States from fall through spring.

Last year, more than 800 bald eagles wintered in California, mostly at remote wildlife refuges in the northern part of the state, with a few straggling farther south. But the California Department of Fish and Game estiamtes only about 50 eagle pairs nested in the state last summer, an ominously low resident population.

Indeed, this bird of prey has been taking it on the beak for quite some time. Once wide-ranging and common (they were found throughout California just a few decades ago), the American bald eagle has been brought to the edge of extinction in most states. Our national symbol of freedom and strength has also become a symbol of vanishing wilderness and endangered wildlife.

Indiscriminate shooting and poisoning, destruction of habitat, and persistent pesticides such as DDT have all taken their toll. In the West, only Oregon and Washington have large enough resident eagle populations to list this raptor as "threatened" instead of "endangered. …

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