In the last ten or so years, Bald Eagles have become more common in the Willits Little Lake Valley, especially along the Outlet Creek corridor. They can be observed every month of the year. This stunning bird was chosen in 1782 by our congress to be the symbol of the United States because it embodied the principles of longevity, strength, and majesty. It was also a common sight on the east coast during the early time of our nascent country. But 100 years later, the Bald eagle had declined to such low numbers across the country that it was threatened with extinction.
The Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, is an American conservation victory. In the late 60’s and early 70’s there were only 18 pairs of Bald Eagles nesting in California. This was mostly due to the now-banned chemical DDT, but also because of habitat loss, shooting, and trapping. These eagles, which are mostly fish eaters but are extremely opportunistic and will eat carrion, were eating contaminated carcasses or prey and accumulating this toxic chemical in their their eggshells. This phenomenon, also observed in the Brown Pelicans and other birds, caused their eggs to be weak and reduced their breeding potential. Though DDT was not banned in the United States until 1972, the Bald Eagle was added to the Federal list of endangered species in 1967 and in 1971 it was added to the California state list. The efforts put forth by the federal Fish and Wildlife Service and California Department of Fish and Wildlife were highly successful at bringing the Bald Eagle population back from the precipice of extinction. These efforts included educating the public, banning trapping and shooting of eagles, initiating breeding programs to help reintroduce these magnificent birds, and banning the use of DDT. However, even today, there are still some nesting failures in California and elsewhere nationally due to DDT. Researching the data from CDFW, I found out that by 2016, the breeding pairs of Bald Eagles in California was more than 200! In 1977, bald eagles were reported to be nesting in eight California counties; and by the mid-1990’s, Bald Eagles were found nesting in 28 of the state’s 58 counties. Today, Bald Eagles are found in 41 of the state’s 58 counties. This is truly a success story about what can happen when we take notice of a decline in a species population and focus resources with education to do something about it! It is gratifying to be seeing the result of the efforts made in the 1970’s pay off right here in our valley.
The Bald Eagle is found only in North America and is one of the largest eagles, with a wingspan of 7 to 8 feet and weighing 8 to 14 pounds. As in all raptors, the females are larger and heavier than the males. An adult bird at four to five years old develops the stunning white head and tail and dark brown body, allowing for quick identification. The juvenile birds are harder to identify since their heads are dark and they can be quite mottled with white spots. It is easy to confuse them with Golden Eagles, which we have nesting in our county also. One thing that helps me to tell them apart is to look closely at the bill. On a Bald Eagle the bill is larger and pronounced with a hook. As it gets older the bill turns to a bright yellow. The Golden Eagle has a dark bill proportional to its head, which makes it look smaller in comparison. There are plumage differences between an immature Bald and an immature Golden but one thing that stands out is the golden nape, or back of the neck on the Golden. This area is lighter with golden highlights as compared to the dark head of the Bald. They are both similar in size and both fly with straight, level wings. Golden Eagles are not as opportunistic as Bald Eagles but have been found eating carrion and dead fish. I have seen Bald Eagles take prey away from Golden Eagles though not without a fight!
Each time I am out surveying on the mitigation lands in the Little Lake Valley, I know there is an opportunity to spot one of these magnificent birds either flying over or sitting atop a tree. It never fails to awe me that this bird is now part of our wildlife food web.