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.