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Sightseers flock to see wild bald eagle roosting outside O.C. Zoo's bald eagle exhibit

A wild bald eagle, which appears to be male, has returned day after day to perch above the cage of Olivia, a 6-year-old female bald eagle. For birders and photographers, it's a rare and exciting sight.

January 30, 2011|By Tony Barboza, Los Angeles Times
  • Not much is known about the wild bald eagle that has set up camp at the Orange County Zoo, but its small size suggests it might be male. Experts note that nearby Santiago Creek offers a reliable food supply, while casual observers speculate that the bird may be looking for company.
Not much is known about the wild bald eagle that has set up camp at the Orange… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)

Maybe the guy just wants some company.

That's the speculation about a wild bald eagle that's taken up residence right outside the Orange County Zoo's bald eagle exhibit.

The bird of prey first appeared last weekend and has spent every morning and evening since then perched in a tree above the zoo's 6-year-old female bald eagle, Olivia. The two have been squawking back and forth all week, said Donald Zeigler, manager of the small zoo in Irvine Regional Park.

Bald eagles are spotted from time to time in the rolling foothills, oaks and sycamores surrounding the zoo, but never before has one taken such an interest in a zoo resident. Olivia is kept at the zoo because an eye injury prevents her from being released back into the wild.

"It's rare for the zoo to have a bald eagle in the exhibit and a wild one outside," Zeigler said. "It's quite a little attraction."

Zookeepers can't say if the wild eagle is lingering because it is attracted to the resident eagle. Its smaller size suggests it is male, but its sex is still unknown.

OC Parks posted video of the wild eagle in a sycamore tree last week. Ever since then, birders and photographers have flocked to the zoo, gathering before dawn in hopes of seeing the creature take off to hunt for fish in the early morning light.

"He's been showing up in a tree 15 feet from the female eagle like a creature of habit," said Linda Jones, a wildlife photographer from Irvine who has gone to the zoo four times to snap photos of the bird. "It's so cute. My guess is that there aren't any female eagles in this area."

Bald eagles nearly went extinct in the 1960s, due in large part to the pesticide DDT. The substance caused the birds to lay thin-shelled eggs that were nearly impossible to hatch. DDT was banned in 1972 and by the 1990s, the bald eagle population rebounded so dramatically that they were removed from the federal endangered species list.

With only a few hundred mating pairs in California, bald eagles are still a relatively uncommon sight in the state, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Many of the bald eagles spotted in Southern California have a wing tag indicating that they were released as part of a restoration program on the Channel Islands. The eagle at the Orange County Zoo has no such tag, however.

One explanation for the eagle's visit is that the zoo lies close to an abundant food source: Santiago Creek. Full of water from recent rains, the creek is teeming with fish and has attracted other winged hunters such as white-tailed kite and osprey.

For now, sightseers are trying to get as much of the bald eagle as they can before it flies away for good.

"We know this is so rare and how hard it is to find wildlife, especially here," Jones said. "You know he's going to realize she's in a cage and leave soon. So you know it's going to end."

tony.barboza@latimes.com

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