Are you in or near the Inland Empire with a hankering to watch the nation's emblematic bird? The U.S. Forest Service could use your help this Saturday at its final bald eagle count of the winter in the San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountains.
Each year the USFS posts volunteer eagle-watchers at strategic points around the shores of lakes in Southern California national forests as part of its annual citizen science census of our national bird. Though the season is already drawing to a close it's been a productive one for eagle-spotters, with 15 seen in February alone.
Years of study of the birds' movements have revealed that many mature bald eagles return to the same Southern California mountain lakes year after year from summer locations as far afield as Montana and Canada. And over the last decade or so, some eagles have decided to stay here year-round to breed -- an exciting development, given that Southern California's original breeding population of bald eagles was wiped out in the 1950s.
The re-establishment of breeding pairs of eagles in SoCal is a result of efforts to reintroduce the species to Santa Catalina Island in the 1980s. Some of the Catalina birds made their way to inland mountains. In 2004, a female hatched at the San Francisco Zoo and released on Catalina raised a nest full of eagle chicks at Riverside County's Lake Hemet, along with a male who'd taken up residence there a bit earlier.
The USFS holds the eagle count in winter, when migrants from the far north boost the local population and make it much likelier that the average volunteer participant will see an eagle. But given that one of the sites for this weekend's count is at Lake Hemet, you might just have a chance to see one of that pioneering couple's babies, or -- given that bald eagles reach reproductive maturity at four or five years of age, perhaps even their grandbabies.
Big Bear Lake, Lake Arrowhead, Lake Silverwood, and Lake Perris are also included in the weekend's count. Volunteers need not undergo training: the USFS asks only that you show up dressed for potentially chilly weather, and bring a pair of binoculars and a watch.
Directions and times for each of the counts can be found in this public announcement issued by the Forest Service. It's important to note that bald eagles are protected from any harassment under the Bald And Golden Eagle Protection Act, so volunteer counters are reminded not to approach eagles on a nest closer than a quarter mile, to stay 200-300 feet away from perched eagles that aren't in nests, and to avoid making loud or sudden noises that might startle the birds. Enjoy them from a respectful distance.