California Department of Fish and Wildlife
This article was originally printed in Outdoor California magazine, May - June 1982 issue.
Vol. 43, No. 3, pp. 26, 28.
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You Can See A Bald Eagle

By Bob Mallette

Many people are unaware that the bald eagle nests in California.

At one time they bred throughout much of the state-near the coast and on the Channel Islands in southern California, and across much of the central and northern part of the state. By 1981, only 58 pairs were found to be nesting in California-all from about Butte County northward.

Except for the California condor, the bald eagle is the largest raptor, or bird of prey, in California, with a wingspread of up to 8 feet. The dark brownish-black adults with white head and tail are easily identified at a distance. The plumage of immature bald eagles is mostly brown and they may have irregular white or buff patches. Immature birds with the patches are sometimes referred to as pinto-colored eagles.

Many new birders have trouble differentiating the dark immature bald eagle from the more common golden eagle. Check a good bird book and look for the differences in underwing color pattern, head color and base of the tail.

Most bald eagle nests are built in dominant ponderosa or sugar pine trees, within a mile of a lake, reservoir or stream. Take your binoculars on each trip into the mountains. You may combine birding with your fishing or backpacking trips. Be especially alert for any large, dark bird flying over a lake or along a stream. It may be a bald eagle. Eagles seem to enjoy the water. They are often seen standing in the shallows to rest or perhaps to take a quick bath.

This majestic bird is rather lazy and will take the path of least resistance. It will sometimes perch on a tree overlooking a foraging area, using its exceptionally keen eyesight to watch for an unwary fish near the water's surface or moving through a shallow stretch of a stream.

A bald eagle can easily snatch a fish from the water. It will even steal fish from the more skillful avian fisherman, the osprey. It may watch an osprey make its catch, then dive on the osprey, forcing it to drop the fish to protect itself. The eagle will easily catch the fish in the air and carry it off for its own enjoyment or that of its mate or nestlings.

A number of bald eagles nest on Shasta Lake and the streams which run into this major reservoir in Shasta County. There eagles have even been seen following far and above and behind speeding motorboats. It's believed that occasionally a fish is either killed or stunned by the boat, becoming an easy meal for an alert eagle.

Bald eagles have been observed from Interstate 5 and a number of recreation area roads riding an updraft to a favored foraging area. The best time to see bald eagles is early in the morning as they move out to forage. They frequently sit in a favored perch tree away from disturbance, and after a meal they will spend most of the day sunning, preening and, if the weather is too warm, they may perch in the shade under the crown of a tree.

Eagles may use any lake, large stream or reservoir as a foraging area, even when they are not nesting in the area. They may go many miles in search of a good supply of fish. Nonbreeding birds may just sit in a quiet area with a handy source of rough fish.

If you are fortunate enough to locate a nest or a concentration of foraging birds, be extremely careful not to disturb them. You may inadvertently cause a nestling to go hungry or interrupt incubation and cause a clutch of eggs to chill and be lost. You must remember this species is endangered. One of the reasons for its decline is disturbance from unknowing or uncaring people using the same area essential to the survival of our national bird.

You may ask, "Where do I have a good chance to see a bald eagle in the winter, or do they all go south?" Winter may provide the best opportunity to see a bald eagle. We are lucky in California because we not only have birds which nest in the state, we also have an even greater number of eagles which come to California for the winter. In 1980-81 a cooperative survey revealed that approximately 850 bald eagles wintered in California because of the mild weather and available food.

In southern California bald eagles and other species of birds may be seen around Lake Mathews, Lake Arrowhead, the Big Bear area and along the Colorado River. Birds at Big Bear frequently forage on coots that spend the winter on open water. Eagles at Lake Mathews are opportunistic and may take fish, waterfowl or mammals. Lake Mathews, however, is patrolled and the public is not allowed near the reservoir because it is a water supply for Los Angeles.

In the central part of the state, bald eagles can be found near reservoirs along the foothills. Up to 12 birds frequently winter at each reservoir, depending on the size of the water body and available food.

Farther north, bald eagles winter along most every stream and every open body of water which supports a food supply for the eagles. Birds generally stay away from areas of human disturbance.

On occasion, eagles will winter away from watered areas to forage on small mammals or carrion.

You can invariably see a large number of bald eagles wintering in the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath basin area, along the Oregon border in Siskiyou County. Three to five large communal roosts are around the basin and birds move into the basin at daylight to forage on fish and waterfowl. About half of the state's wintering bald eagle population can be found there.

Again, I warn that only you can help prevent disturbance to one of our most majestic birds. Caution those near you who might not care that these birds are endangered and in need of our assistance to keep them from extinction. When in the field observing bald eagles, be sure to note the interaction between this interesting bird and other species of the avian world. Many other species share the habitat of the bald eagle and this gives you an opportunity to sharpen your birding skills and enjoy many of California's feathered creatures.

For updated information about the bald eagle recovery program and for more information about where you can go to see bald eagles, see here.

Bob Mallette retired in 1983 from the Department of Fish and Wildlife, where he was the Wildlife Management Supervisor in the nongame and endangered bird and mammal section. He is an active birder and authored many articles in his "Birding" series in Outdoor California.