The best local places to see bald eagles
The sunrise briefly paints the Sonoma coast in the softest of pinks. The Russian River and the Pacific Ocean reflect these colors for a few moments. A large bird cruises over the river mouth, her head a striking white against the backdrop, searching for her favorite food in the surf line. Her eagle eyes, among the strongest in the animal kingdom, spot a Pacific lamprey, a long, slender fish more than 2 feet long.
The bald eagle dives down, extending her thick yellow talons, talons as big as a man’s clenched fist. She can reach speeds up to 100 miles per hour as she angles down toward her prey. In a flash she has grabbed the fish from the water and flies to a nearby rock to eat her meal.
As a result of a concerted effort to breed bald eagles in captivity, along with a ban on DDT, bald eagles are slowly recovering, in Sonoma County and elsewhere. A bald eagle pair built a nest at Lake Sonoma, which was chronicled in 2001, and they have been raising chicks every year since then. Bald eagles arrived at Laguna de Santa Rosa in 2007 and have nested there every year. They have become a more common sighting near the Occidental Road Bridge, and north to Guerneville Road.
According to Larry Broderick of West County Hawk Watch, in 2008 a single bald eagle was spotted in Jenner, at the mouth of the Russian River. By 2011 he or she had found a mate. The first fledgling was seen in 2013. The location of their nest is kept secret.
This past autumn, a pair of bald eagles has been causing excitement at the mouth of the Gualala River. It is hoped this pair will nest in the watershed of the river. A good place to spot them is from the Gualala Bluff Trail.
Bald eagles build their impressive nests, called eyries, out of sticks on the top of a tall tree. Their nests are always near water, as they mostly eat fish, ducks, snakes and turtles. A nest can weigh up to one ton.
Joan Bacci volunteers at the Visitors Center in Jenner and she often has a front row seat for nature sightings. She says, “It is so much fun following them and sharing them with so many people through our photographs. People can easily follow us at www.facebook.com/JennerBaldEagles.”
Frank Coster is another fan of these birds, and he often sets up his camera on the Highway 1 pullout just above the Russian River’s mouth. One day he caught magic.
“I saw the bald eagle was approaching a sea lion,” Coster said, “so I started photographing, taking 12 frames per second. My view of the action was somewhat limited but I could tell the eagle pounced on the sea lion and was stealing something. I followed the eagle after the steal to where it landed on the north end of Goad Rock near the jetty, and saw that it had a lamprey. I was pretty excited with what I saw. It’s another reason that keeps us coming back out - you never know what you will see.”
The best time to see the Jenner bald eagles is between sunrise and mid-morning, advises Coster. If there are people on the beach, the eagles will leave, so the best place to observe them is from the Highway 1 pullouts just north of Jenner. Those spots give an elevated view of the river’s mouth.
Coster said, “I would like that the public be made aware of the eagles. I routinely hear comments from people who didn’t know they were there. But please, when coming out to watch the greatest show around, be mindful of their space, and that we humans are their greatest danger. An eagle, or any wildlife, that is disturbed and forced to flee its feeing grounds still has to eat to survive. They can’t go to the supermarket like the rest of us.”
While bald eagles, once on the endangered species list and in danger of going extinct in the lower 48 states, have been making an impressive comeback, the story of their precipitous decline is a cautionary one.
After World War II, the pesticide DDT was used extensively to control mosquitoes and other insects. The unintended consequence of the chemical was to adversely affect bald eagles, brown pelicans and peregrine falcons.
When DDT was sprayed on croplands across the country,the residue washed into lakes and streams. Aquatic plants and small animals absorbed the chemical, and they were in turn eaten by fish. The contaminated fish were then eaten by eagles, pelicans and falcons.
The result of DDT was to make the shells of their eggs so thin that when the mother bird sat on her eggs, she broke them. Their numbers plunged. Rachel Carson published her famous book, “Silent Spring,” in the autumn of 1962, sounding the warning about the adverse effects of pesticides in the environment.
In 1972 DDT was banned for most uses in the United States. By that time there were fewer than 30 nesting pairs of bald eagles in California, all in the northern third of the state.
Other obstacles for these majestic birds include poisoning from lead bullets and habitat loss because of housing development and/or logging.
To see bald eagles where they haven’t been seen for decades is a thrill a nature observer won’t soon forget. The presence of these regal birds has the ability to fill you with wonder. We’d be a much poorer place without bald eagles, soaring high in the skies.
Jeanne A. Jackson is the author of Mendonoma Sightings Throughout the Year. She posts nature photos of the coast on her website at mendonomasightings.com.