A 4-year-old bald eagle seen at Big Bear Lake in February 2016. Bald eagles acquire the full white head and tail in their fifth year. Until then, they are have different plumages of brown and white. Photo by Robin Eliason,
district wildlife biologist on the San Bernardino National Forest

The U. S. Forest Service has scheduled its four bald eagle counts for this winter. All counts will be on the Saturday mornings of Dec. 10, Jan. 14, Feb. 11 and March 11.

Migrating eagles typically begin arriving in the area in late November and leave in late March or early April. During the winter, Southern California bald eagles are typically found at many of the lakes, including Big Bear Lake, Baldwin Lake, Silverwood Lake, Lake Arrowhead, Green Valley Lake and Grass Valley Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains, and Prado Dam, Lake Perris, Lake Hemet, Lake Skinner, Diamond Valley Lake, Lake Matthews and the Salton Sea to the south.

The Forest Service stresses that no experience is necessary. Signing up ahead of time is not required either. Volunteers may just show up at the designated time and location. Dress should be warm to accommodate morning temperatures, and binoculars and a watch will be helpful. 

Brief orientations are held prior to the count so volunteers know where to go and what to do.

Through radio-tracking of the bald eagles, biologists learned that some of the same individual eagles migrate year after year to the San Bernardino Mountains from Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Canada. Some of the San Bernardino Mountains’ eagles were tracked all the way to Alberta and the Northwest Territories in Canada — about 2,000 miles one-way — according to Ann Bowers, the San Jacinto Ranger District biologist.

“Breeding populations of bald eagles in Southern California were wiped out in the late 1950s. Since 2003, several pairs of bald eagles have decided that our Southern California neighborhoods were too nice to leave — they built nests and have successfully raised families. Nesting bald eagles are now found at Lake Hemet, Lake Skinner, Lake Matthews and Big Bear Lake,” Bowers wrote in an email. 

“K-02, a female eagle hatched at San Francisco Zoo in 2000, was released on Catalina Island as part of reintroduction efforts. In 2004, she arrived at Lake Hemet, took up year-round residence with the male bald eagle that was already there,” Bowers wrote. The pair hatched and raised eaglet chicks for years.

During the 2014-15 nesting season, Forest Service staff at San Jacinto Ranger District noted that K-02 had not been sighted since March 2014. In December of 2014, two bald eagles were observed at Lake Hemet, neither one bearing tags.

In April 2015, K-02 was spotted flying over Lake Palmdale, confirming that the two eagles now residing at Lake Hemet were likely to be a new male and female pair. Although the new pair of eagles exhibited breeding behavior, such as incubating the nest, no offspring were observed until the 2015-16 nesting season. The parents have successfully fledged their first chick, according to Bowers.

As bald eagles raise families in Southern California, it is now possible to see bald eagles year-round (not just during winter migrations). Because of the influx of migrating bald eagles during the winter, the easiest time to see eagles is still between December and March.

The bald eagle count is a wonderful opportunity to catch a glimpse of the breath-taking national symbol.

At a previous eagle count, Lareina Van Sant and Heidi Hoggan look across Lake Hemet to spot the two resident bald eagles in a tall tree together. Photo by John Drake

The local count will be at Lake Hemet. Volunteers should meet at the Lake Hemet Grocery Store at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 10, for orientation. Contact Ann Bowers ([email protected] or 909-382-2935) for more information. 

Other counts that day within the San Bernardino National Forest will be at Big Bear Lake, Lake Arrowhead, Lake Gregory, Silverwood Lake State Recreation Area and Lake Perris State Recreation Area.