RADventure: Quest for the "American Bald Eagle"

The Bald and The Beautiful

While driving home, heard Arjun and Ahana excitedly reveal the exploratory trips lined up over the next few days. Being the ‘Memorial Day’ long weekend, realized that they had prepared an action-packed itinerary for us to experience.  My body and mind were struggling to re-calibrate upon arrival into a new city after a tans-continent flight. It was summer in California, May 2017, when we landed at SFO to spend the next three months with Ahana and Arjun. 
Runa and I had just arrived from Beijing after a 15 day sojourn in China and Tibet (written about it in an earlier blog).

Bay Area -Sunset ... the land of billion dollar dreams (as seen from Mt Hamilton)

The plans, I overheard included whale watching, paint-nite workshop, visits to California Science museum, Alcatraz prison, Las Vegas and the list went on. Eventually the topic of birding came up, which pulled me out of my slumber, heard Arjun apprise few birding spots in and around the marshlands of Bay area. On cue from Arjun, it dawned on me that I was pretty much clueless about birding in North America. Thus, over the next 24-48 hours, as we shrugged-off the effects of jetlag, I started pouring over various birding journals on the web. Arjun and Ahana chipped in with their inputs on local birds and their habitat. Our first birding trip during the Memorial Day weekend was to ‘Point Reyes Observatory’ which happened to be a great eye-opener for the uninitiated, the landscape, the forests of Marin County, and the birds, all put together got the team hooked!

Meanwhile, at home, while observing a US quarter coin, I saw the image of an American Bald Eagle. Bingo!  It then struck me that having come to America, we ought to sight a Bald Eagle in its natural habitat. A grand bird that has been miraculously saved from extinction in the US. I put forth the idea to my teammates, and thus emerged an objective for all our birding trips i.e. to spot a Bald Eagle - 'Haliaeetus leucocephalus'! After all it is the largest raptor in North America, the national bird and animal of USA. The only other avian species larger than a bald eagle in North America being California Condor, which is a vulture. Sighting a bald eagle in peak summer is like looking for rain clouds in a desert. Most of them move to Alaska in the summer months.

The bald eagle appears on the US government seal. In the late 20th century it was on the brink of local extinction in the United States. It was removed from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in 2007. Its population decline was attributed to intense hunting, unintentional poisonings (notably use of DDT and lead shot), and habitat destruction. The Bald Eagle population restoration is a major success story of US wildlife conservation.

Thus, began our quest for the Bald and the Beautiful … The American Bald Eagle (BaldiE)!  Over the next few weekends - extended, ordinary or long, the quest gradually turned into a passion, to locate a likely habitat, and comb the forest area for a BaldiE. (Would like to mention that I had written a smaller version on Facebook in July 2017).

The first reconnaissance trip was roughly 600 miles of driving over a long weekend, during mid June 2017. We set out very early in the day.
Early morning on US I680 - I580 .. on way to Sonora
The route took us through the northwest region of California state through Twaine Harte, Sonora Pass, Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park. The four of us and our two dear canines Joey and Oscar hopped into Arjun’s SUV after some basic planning. While Joey (a mini daschund) happily settled on to Ahana’s lap, Oscar (a cross between St Bernard + Sherpei) was very reluctant as the space allocated to him in the SUV, was quite restrictive for a dog of his size (and stature). Half way through the first day, it became clear, that the summer’s heat (360C) and being confined in a SUV, was not to Joey or Oscar’s liking. The SUV AC even in full blast was not good enough, especially for Oscar. Like a true St Bernard, Oscar loves to sprawl across the floor with full blast of cold air on to him. He clearly dislikes anything other than his sleep and a cool environment. And in between his regular bouts of sleep, an evening or a morning walk is most welcome. Joey on the other hand is a bundle of energy, has a very sharp mind and always wants to play. While it was fun for us to have them around, but the mere fact that they seemed to be struggling due to the heat and limited space, meant change in tactics for our future adventurous pursuits. 

The route over Sonora pass (9200 ft), across the Siera – Nevada Mountain region, offering a wealth of scenic vistas, was luckily open, while most mountain top remained snow-capped. Only a few exotic routes (like the one to Mono Lake) remained closed to traffic being under snow and likely landslides. Sadly, the forest rangers informed us that all Bald Eagles had migrated up north during the summer months. Moreover, since there was a huge rush of campers and holidayers all over the place which practically ruled out any chance of Bald Eagle sighting. We did get to spot some of the common summer birds such as Acorn Woodpecker, Stellar Jay, Yellow-rumped Warbler, American Robin, Black-headed Grosbeak, Kildeer, Tri-colored Blackbird, Mountain Chikadee, Dark Eyed Junco, Red Naped Sap-sucker, Cassin’s Finch, etc. Birding apart, we did explore the usual sights of Yosemite National Park. We returned to our base in San Jose, after 3 days of exploration without any luck.

Glimpses of Birds at Stanislaus National Forest
In the next long weekend, we decided to drive along the Klamath basin, the region drained by the Klamath River, in the U.S. states of Oregon and California. The Klamath basin region is 35% in Oregon and 65% in California and approximately covers an area of 15,000 square miles (40K Km2). In Oregon, the watershed typically lies east of the Cascade Range, while California contains most of the river's segment that passes through the mountains. The habitat looked quite perfect for the BaldiE. Thus, emerged the second rendezvous … 4 days of thrills on wheels 1500 miles (30June - 03July) across forests and wilderness of Klamath region, North California and South Oregon thru Shasta-Trinity National Forest, Klamath National Forest, Klamath Basin, Crater Lake National Park, Willamette National Park, down 101 coastal highway across Florence, Bandon bay, Redwood Forest. Fantastic forest, fabulous mountains, fascinating country side .... beauty at its best! We spotted many a bird - Great Blue heron, American Coot, Great Egrets, Clark’s Grebe, Canada Geese, Glossy Ibis, Redhead, White Pelican, Spotted Towhee, Calfornia Quail, Scrub Jay, American Robin and other birds. The wardens and local people did mention about BaldiE sightings in the region, and shared some of the known locations, which in turn spiked our excitement. We kept surveying tree tops, cliff tops, and the sky across every water body, alas! we seemed to be out of luck. Once again many bird sightings along the way but no trace of the BaldiE.
Glimpses of Birds of the Klamath Basin Region

Must mention, that the Bald Eagle (BaldiE) is not bald, it has a white plumage on its head, the name derives from the Greek meaning- white headed (Haliaeetus leucocephalus, from Greek hali "sea", aiÄ“tos "eagle", leuco "white", cephalos "head"). It’s a sea eagle species found near large bodies of open water with an abundant food supply and old-growth trees for nesting. The bird is endemic to North America. Some interesting facts – the female is 25% larger than the male. Typically, the mature female could weigh 4 - 8Kgs and the corresponding male around 3 - 6.5Kgs. Moreover, as you go away from the equator the size of the bird increases (Bergmann’s Rule). The largest BaldiE’s are from Alaska where female BaldiE weigh around 7.5 Kgs and their wing span is 8.0 ft across. Interestingly, the northern birds are migratory while their southern counterparts are residents. The bald eagle typically requires old-growth and mature stands of coniferous or hardwood trees for perching, roosting, and nesting. Selected trees must have good visibility, be over 20 m (66 ft) tall, an open structure, and proximity to waterbodies i.e. fish its common prey. In a more typical tree standing on dry ground, nests may be located from 16 to 38 m (50 to 125 ft) in height. BaldiE nests are often very large in order to compensate for size of the birds. The largest recorded nest measured at nearly 10 ft wide and 20 ft deep. Almost the size of a studio apartment in Mumbai!

The BaldiE is a powerful flier, and soars on thermal convection currents. It reaches speeds of 56–70 km/h when gliding and flapping, and about 48 km/h while carrying fish. Its dive speed is reported between 120–160 km/h (source – wiki).

Now, back from the second unsuccessful quest, it felt like spotting a BaldiE would be feasible only if we go up north i.e into Seattle / Vancouver / Alsaka region. While we toyed with the idea of driving upto Seattle, in the interim we decided on short day trips into nearby water bodies that could be a likely habitat of a resident BaldiE. We set out along the western coast Carmel-by-Sea, Big Sur including Salinas National Wildlife Refuge i.e. along the Monterey bay. This was south of San Francisco. The outcome consistently negative.  We also had lined up a drive up-north (of San Francisco) along the pacific coast to Mendocino National Forest and Clear Lake. On paper, all locations seemed fit, they all reported sightings in the past though mostly during winter months.

This hunt for the BaldiE had now turned into a craze. Chants, prayers, charms all were welcome in fulfillment of our mission.

Glimpses of Birds at , Salinas Refuge, Carmel, Bigsur

We began to single out each and every water body closer to home. Time flew, it was almost third week of July (16/7) by then, in another 4 weeks we would be heading back to India. Also beginning 29th July, Anubhav the final member of the team was scheduled to arrive. Upon Anubhav’s arrival, the flavor of the programs would undergo a fun-filled twist, covering boating, pubs, food joints, Casino @ Vegas etc. Thus the weekend of 21st  July, was practically the final weekend for BaldiE spotting. Clearly time, weather and the BaldiE seemed to be conspiring against our pursuit.

In accordance, about 50 miles south east of San Jose, nestled amongst the hills of East Gilroy lies the Coyote Lake Harvey Bear Ranch County Park. A 400 acre lake amidst a 6500 acre forest, seemed to be a right location. Hence, on 22nd July, we headed off to Coyote Lake, Gilroy at 6 am in the morning. The plan was to hit the birding trail by 7.00 am and then venture further South to nearby lakes later in the day. At the foothills of the park we came across a Red-Tailed Hawk, I could get quite close (100 ft) and was able to take some close-up shots. After all raptors are cute and majestic. At the Coyote Lake entrance gate of the park, the Ranger did not instill any bit of confidence, they pleaded ignorance of BaldiE presence (as a rule wildlife rangers desist from giving accurate locations as that would drive hordes of enthusiasts and also for the fear of poaching), bit dejected, we drove ahead towards the dam, spotting wild turkeys, turkey vultures, acorn woodpecker and so on.

While scanning the tree tops, standing between ‘Twin Redwoods’ and ‘Coopers Point’ locations of Coyote Lake, towards south about 150 meters away, amongst coniferous trees we spotted a fairly large nest at least 70 ft high above the ground. The size of the rather large nest drew our attention. None of us had ever witnessed such a large nest. As we debated whether it was a nest or a jumble of broken branches, right then …..  it happened! We saw a fairly large bird come and land on the branch adjacent to the nest. It had its talon’s wide open, and it took a while to figure out the white head. It was a BaldiE after all! And soon thereafter, appeared a juvenile BaldiE, followed by another. In all three of them used that nest – a female, male and a juvenile. What a climax!

The BaldiE returning to its nest
It was post 2pm that day. Summer heat was killing, and being in the forest since early morning, we were completely drained. Excitedly, we headed home after a short lunch at Gilroy. The sense of achievement was still to sink in fully and therefore we returned next morning to the same spot to observe the grand beauties more minutely, in a laid-back atmosphere, and celebrate the achievement with a picnic at the picturesque location.

What a relief it was, and what a great satisfaction to have spotted a Bald Eagle in its natural habitat. It was a lifer indeed.

The American Bald Eagle

In our quest for the Bald Eagle, we had driven over 4800 Km of forests, mountains and the country-side, we consequently witnessed countless avian species across the marvelous landscape of California. As Anubhav, Runa and I wrapped up our holiday in California with Ahana, Arjun, Oscar and Joey! this was a grandiose achievement that will remain with etched for a long time. The photographs of ‘the Bald and the Beautiful’ now adorns my home walls, reminding us of the spirit, the adventure and the pursuit that bonded us, over 60 days of birding!

"Like thee, majestic bird! like thee,
She stands in unbought majesty,
With spreading wings, untired and strong,
That dares a soaring far and long,
That mounts aloft, nor looks below
And will not quail, though tempests blow."
-       The American Eagle by CW Thompson

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