Help count how many Bald Eagles winter in Big Bear Lake

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Bald Eagle

One of the most popular organized wildlife watching activities on the San Bernardino National Forest is the annual winter bald eagle count. Volunteer citizen scientists help collect data that help U.S. Forest Service biologists monitor wintering bald eagle populations. The program began in 1978.

The counts will be held on the second Saturday morning of each month through the winter season: December 9, January 13, February 10, and March 10. No reservations are needed; just show up at a designated location at the start time with binoculars and a way to keep time. Dress for winter weather.

  • Big Bear Lake area volunteers will meet at 8 a.m. at the Big Bear Discovery Center on North Shore Drive for orientation. Contact Robin Eliason (reliason@fs.fed.us) or 909- 382-2832 for more information. Please call 909-382-2832 for cancellation due to winter weather conditions—an outgoing message will be left by 6:30 a.m. the day of the count. After the count at 11 a.m., Eliason will present a free program about bald eagles.
  • Lake Arrowhead and Lake Gregory volunteers will meet at 8 a.m. at the Skyforest Ranger Station for orientation. Contact Robin Eliason (reliason@fs.fed.us) or 909-382- 2832 for more information. Please call 909-382-2832 for cancellation due to winter weather conditions—an outgoing message will be left by 6:30 a.m. the day of the count.

The best time of year to see bald eagles in Southern California is during winter months when there is an influx of eagles. Migrating eagles typically begin arriving in the area in late November and leave in late March or early April.

Bald eagles are usually found close to water because their diet is primarily made up of fish and ducks. As winter approaches in those northern regions, lakes freeze over and waterfowl fly south. For bald eagles, that means that the food they eat has become scarce. So they head south looking for areas with abundant food supplies and end up wintering in sunny Southern California.

Through radio-tracking efforts, biologists learned that some of the same individual eagles return to the San Bernardino Mountains year after year. We also determined that there is a lot of movement of eagles between the different mountain lakes and that the lakes do not have distinctive separate populations—the eagles regularly move between the mountain lakes.

Radio-tracking and/or banding also revealed that the eagles which winter in the San Bernardino Mountains migrate to Southern California from Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Canada. Some of the San

Bernardino Mountains’ eagles were tracked all the way to Alberta and the Northwest Territories in Canada—that is about 2,000 miles one-way.

For more information regarding bald eagle migratory routes for these and other California eagles, go to the University of Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group’s website at http://www2.ucsc.edu/scpbrg/baeamigration.htm.

Breeding populations of bald eagles in Southern California were extirpated by the late 1950s. Until reintroduction efforts began in the 1980s on Catalina Island, the southern-most nest site known in California was in Lake County. Since 2003, several pairs of bald eagles have moved back into the area.

In 2012, a pair of bald eagles established a successful nest on Big Bear Lake—the first ever for the San Bernardino Mountains. That pair has continued to nest near Big Bear Lake ever since.

The bald eagle is a success story of the federal Endangered Species Act—through protection under that law, its populations have recovered from the brink of extinction. Captive breeding programs, reintroduction efforts, the banning of DDT and public education have all helped in the recovery of this species.

There are over 10,000 breeding pairs in the United States, and they now breed again in all 49 of the continental United States (they have never bred in Hawaii).

Because of the population rebound, bald eagles are no longer in jeopardy of going extinct. While bald eagles are no longer protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, they still have full protection under the Bald Eagle Protection Act and under the State of California’s Endangered Species Act. These laws make it illegal to harm or harass bald eagles. It is also illegal to possess bald eagle parts, even a feather.

For eagle viewing in the Big Bear area, stop by the Forest Service’s Big Bear Discovery Center (on North Shore Drive, 1-1/2 miles west of Stanfield Cutoff) and pick up a handout on eagles. Also, join us for one of our free public talks—call the Big Bear Discovery Center (909-382-2790) for dates and times. You

can also take a peek into the Big Bear bald eagle nest via a “nest cam” installed by the non-profit group Friends of Big Bear Valley: http://www.iws.org/interactive_nestchat_allUstream.html.

Remember that human presence may distract or disturb the eagles, so try to limit your movements and do not make loud noises when they’re nearby. If possible, remain in your car while looking at eagles—the car acts as a blind. Stay a respectful distance of at least 200’ to 300’ away from perched bald eagles. Do not get closer than ¼ mile away nesting bald eagles. Trying to get a closer look may result in eagles becoming agitated and knocking eggs or chicks out to the nest. It is illegal to harm or harass bald eagles. Please do your part to help protect our national bird.