Bird watchers set sights on bald eagles
From the lookout platform at Taylor Creek, they looked like small white dots on the skeletal, leafless trees.
They could have easily been confused for clumps of snow.
With the help of binoculars, however, a group of U.S. Forest Service officials, volunteers, Sacramento TV reporters and two guys from the Tahoe Daily Tribune were able to see the white splotches for what they really were – Haliaeetus leucocephalus.
The official number of bald eagles counted Friday during the annual Lake Tahoe Basin Midwinter Bald Eagle Survey won’t be known until later this week, but the crew at Taylor Creek saw two of the large raptors. The birds, which can weigh more than 10 pounds, perched on tree branches about 150 yards from the platform.
Bald eagle wingspans can reach up to 8 feet wide, and when the two eagles took off over the lake – whether they were disturbed by the group or merely decided it was time to move on – everyone watching could tell how big they were. After looking for several minutes, Forest Service officials located them again, perched on two trees farther up the West Shore – very far away.
The bald eagle count went from 9 a.m. to noon, and the Forest Service had more than 40 people signed up to watch at 28 locations throughout the basin.
Sarah Muskopf, Forest Service wildlife technician, wasn’t sure if everyone showed up, but she did know turnout was better than last year.
“We had a really great turnout,” she said. “A lot of people I talked to had fun, even though they didn’t see any eagles.”
Lake Tahoe resident Jim Hildinger took his 27-foot around Emerald Bay and up to Rubicon Point, looking for bald eagles.
“We did see three eagles. We had a very delightful day,” he said. “It was pretty out on the lake, very much like Washington state in the morning, and then the sun came out and it was warm. Life doesn’t get any better. It was a lot of fun.”
Hildinger and his boat have participated in the count for several years. However, for one group of people it was the first year. About 30 South Tahoe Middle School students – not counted in the 45 volunteers – came to Taylor Creek around 10:30 a.m.
“I think it’s really important for them to get out and see a real-world opportunity,” said Sandy Moulton, the children’s teacher. “They’ve learned about endangered species, and that the bald eagles are making a comeback. This way they can see (the bald eagles) really are making a comeback.”
The annual survey is part of the National Midwinter Bald Eagle Survey that was initiated by the National Wildlife Federation in 1979, and Lake Tahoe has participated since the first year. The annual survey is not intended to be an exact count of every eagle, but it is supposed to signify population trends.
In the 1979 survey, two bald eagles were observed in the basin, 772 in California and more than 9,000 nationwide. Last year, seven bald eagles were counted in Tahoe, 1,091 in California and more than 14,000 nationwide. The number of bald eagles counted in Tahoe has been as high as 20.
Most of Tahoe’s bald eagles nest in northern areas with harsh winters, such as Alaska and British Columbia, and migrate south, looking to winter at large bodies of open water. In Tahoe, they start arriving around October and they stay at Tahoe until about March.
Until 1997 and 1998, there was no evidence of any bald eagles nesting in the basin since 1970.
However, Forest Wildlife Biologist Pat Shanley said that bald eagles typically reproduce within 100 miles of the area where they were raised. Hopefully, the nesting pair’s offspring will soon be nesting in Tahoe, too.
Wildlife experts believe there may have been 25,000 to 75,000 nesting bald eagles in the lower 48 states when the bird was adopted as the national symbol in 1782, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Those numbers decreased for numerous reasons – habitat destruction, direct killing, contamination of food sources from the pesticide DDT – and there were fewer than 450 bald eagle nesting pairs in the lower 48 states by the early 1960s.
It became illegal to kill them, DDT was banned and their habitats were restored.
Officials estimate there are nearly 4,500 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states now. Earlier in the 1990s, the bald eagle’s classification on the federal endangered species list moved from endangered to threatened.
Although the final bald eagle tally isn’t yet known, officials know the day was a success.
“I think it went really well,” said Kevin Laves, a Forest Service wildlife biologist stationed at the Taylor Creek site. “We’ll have to see what we get from everyone else. I’m excited.”
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