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Eagle eyeing

The national symbol, its numbers resurgent, is gracing local skies.

July 15, 2007|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

THE bald eagle is abundant in the backcountry of Alaska, Minnesota and other northern states, but you don't have to trek far to get a glimpse of our national symbol, which recently took wing from the endangered species list.

Like many paparazzi-pursued icons, the bird of prey with the snowy white head has put down roots in Southern California, within a few minutes' drive of our crowded freeways and cookie-cutter developments.

Bird lovers and shutterbugs can spot the flourishing haliaeetus leucocephalus nesting, hunting and soaring near lakes and seashores in the Southland. Although bald eagles are more prevalent during their winter migration here, some have become year-round residents.

Catalina Island, for example, is home to about 26 bald eagles that nest and hunt year-round near the shores at Two Harbors on the less inhabited side of the island. In April, the island marked the first unaided birth of an eagle chick in 50 years.

"It's impossible to miss their big, beautiful white heads," said Leslie Baer, a spokeswoman for the Catalina Island Conservancy, which has helped rebuild wildlife habitat on the island.

Bald eagles have become so prevalent around Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains that forest officials now offer two-hour daily van tours, beginning in December, around the lake to the eagles' hunting and nesting grounds. There's even a Valentine's Day eagle tour that comes with flowers, chocolates and Champagne.

It's been an amazing comeback for the bald eagle, once a symbol of America's environmental failures.

From 1967 to 1995, the bird was listed as endangered in 43 of the Lower 48 states under the federal Endangered Species Act. (It previously had been listed as threatened in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Washington and Oregon.) The pesticide DDT was largely to blame for the population plunge.

In July 1995, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service upgraded the bald eagles' status from "endangered" to "threatened." (Under the act, endangered species are afforded more protections than threatened species because they are thought to be closer to extinction.)

Last month it was announced that the reduced use of DDT, the expansion of habitat restoration and the help of captive-breeding programs had revitalized the bald eagle population enough to remove it from the threatened list.

The number of bald eagles in the Lower 48 climbed from an all-time low of 417 nesting pairs in 1963 to about 11,000 pairs today. (Hawaii is outside of the eagles' range, and the bird has never been threatened or endangered in Alaska, home to an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 bald eagles, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)

Some of the biggest populations of the birds are in Florida, Wisconsin, Washington, Minnesota, Oregon and Michigan, but the largest concentration remains in Alaska. Between October and December, eagle enthusiasts flock to the Chilkat River near Haines, Alaska, to see up to 3,000 eagles feast on salmon.

Bald eagles typically nest high in trees or caves near bodies of water where they hunt fish with their sharp talons. They can weigh up to 10 pounds with a wingspan of up to 8 feet.

Biologists note that venturing too close to an eagle's nest can disrupt the bird's reproductive process. For that reason, wildlife officials won't disclose the exact location of known bald eagle nests in Southern California, but here are places you may spot them in flight.

Channel Islands

At least 40 eagles live in the string of islands that stretch from Santa Cruz, off Santa Barbara, to Catalina, 22 miles southwest of San Pedro. Most bald eagles in California only winter in these parts, but these eagles can be spotted year-round, said Annie Little, a wildlife biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service. Most of the islands -- some fall in Channel Islands National Park -- are accessible by boat and ideal for hiking, camping and kayaking, she said. Info: Catalina Island Conservancy, (562) 437-8555 or www.catalinaconservancy.org. Channel Islands National Park, (805) 658-5730 or www.nps.gov/chis/.

Big Bear Lake

As many as 30 eagles winter around this and other nearby mountain lakes in the San Bernardino Mountains. They typically arrive in November from Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Canada and Alaska, heading to Big Bear, Silverwood and Arrowhead lakes and staying until early April. Starting in December, the Big Bear Discovery Center offers guided van tours around Big Bear Lake to at least 10 spots where the birds nest and hunt. Info: (909) 382-2790, www.bigbeardiscoverycenter.com.

Diamond Valley Lake

and Lake Hemet

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