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In search of a bald eagle, just miles from Lodi

News-Sentinel reporter takes a journey through nature ahead of the annual Sandhill Crane Festival

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Posted: Thursday, October 27, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 6:49 am, Thu Oct 27, 2011.

As the boat glides off the ramp shortly before 10 a.m., we are filled with anticipation as our eyes dart back and forth watching for the majestic bald eagle.

The water at Pardee Reservoir lightly laps against the shore, where two fisherman already have lines in the water.

James Jones guides the boat out onto Pardee and tells us he has always found a bald eagle during tours. He then hopes he didn’t just jinx himself.

Forty other bird-watchers will also travel to Pardee during the Sandhill Crane Festival from Nov. 4 to 6 for the bald eagle tour. East Bay Municipal Utility District wildlife biologists, like Jones, will show visitors not only the national bird, but a variety of other birds that rely on the Pardee Reservoir and its environs for survival.

After clearing the 5 mile per hour zone, our boat sprints across the water at 36 mph to one of the eagles’ nests across the reservoir.

Jones says he has counted one active nest with two young at Pardee. And for the first time, there are two nests with three young each on Camanche Reservoir.

Eagles have always come to the area during the winter because of the abundant supply of catfish and carp, but they have not historically nested here, Jones said as he steers the boat. Construction of the reservoir has created a stable and abundant food supply.

As we approach the nest, Jones slows the boat, grabs his binoculars and watches some birds flying in the distance. He is looking at the wing span. He is seeing if the wings are flat. He is observing the colors on the beak and claws.

“You look at them long enough, and you start noticing different things,” Jones says.

At the top of a cliff, there is one lone tree with a nest that probably measures about 7 feet wide and 8 to 10 feet deep. It looks like it is made of large branches, not twigs, and it is precariously perched on top of a dead tree.

Jones said this pair of eagles have nested in the area for 10 years, and have used that particular nest for two years. Yet there are no eagles in sight.

He steers the boat along the shoreline scanning the trees. A fisherman docked on the shore asks if we have caught anything.

We stop and wait for about 10 minutes and Jones discusses how he got interested in becoming a wildlife biologist while growing up outside of Ventura.

“I spent a lot of time outdoors, and I wanted to know what I was looking at,” Jones says.

About an hour in, with still no sign of the eagles at nest No. 2, I’m beginning to think they are camera-shy.

“The eagles are not cooperating with me today,” Jones says.

Jones continues north, entering a quiet cove with glassy water that quickly turns to foam as the boat veers left. A white great egret lands on the bank.

A few minutes later we see a prairie falcon perched on the top of a cliff, and it almost blends into the rock. A pair of the falcons have been in the area for a couple of years, but Jones has not yet found their nest.

We go past large rock formations and the edge of the canyons have jagged edges of wood with fallen trees clinging to the brush.

As we sail around a corner, we see a large bird flying along a cliff. We jump and Jones stops the boat.

He grabs a pen to jot down the sighting of another type of eagle — a juvenile golden eagle.

He pulls out the “Sibley Field Guide” (one of the premier birding books) to show us that the golden eagle has more white in its wings, is an inch longer than a bald eagle and has a smaller head and bill. When they are young, golden eagles also have white tails.

“We are seeing everything except the bird we are supposed to see,” Jones says.

Yet the golden eagle is still a special bird for Jones. While he cannot remember when he first saw a bald eagle, he remembers exactly when he saw his first golden eagle.

He was driving with his brother in Southern California when they stopped to look at what they thought was a wooden statue of an eagle. But then it moved.

“We thought, ‘Whoa, we didn’t know they got that big,’” he says.

We continue up the canyon until we reach the very end of the reservoir. Jones unzips the black canvas roof on the boat and scans the trees high up on the cliffs. Even though five buzzards are circling, there is no sign of the bald eagle.

As I try to cheer everyone up by detailing all of the wildlife we have seen, Jones says he has not given up hope yet.

He turns the boat around and we are all quiet as we scan the skyline with out eyes. While he uses his binoculars to scan the sky, I point toward a plane, mistaking it as a bird.

“It made me look twice too. I was thinking, ‘There’s white on it,’” Jones says. We take a break to discuss the growth of nesting eagles in the area. It is rare for any bald eagle nest to have three offspring that survive — let alone two at Camanche. Eagles are hatched usually a day or two apart, and the parents will feed them one at a time, starting with the oldest.

If there is not enough food in the area, the youngest will often die of starvation even if there are only two offspring.

“It’s a little brutal, but it works for them,” Jones says.

Shortly after our break, we turn a corner and Jones immediately slows the boat. Almost two hours after we started our trip, a juvenile bald eagle with a 6-foot-long wingspan glides through the air.

It lands on a thin tree branch, which is a rare perching place for the eagles, Jones said. He slowly moves the boat until we are about two feet from shore and almost directly under the bird.

It’s a 1-year-old eagle, and has not developed the signature white feathers on the top of its head. That does not happen until between 4 to 5 years.

“I don’t think I’ve been this close to one, at least not sitting up in a tree,” Jones says.

We all smile continuously and stare at it for about four minutes, until it leaves the branch and flies away.

As we head back down the canyon, we continue to look for any adult bald eagles, but there are none in sight. They could be hunting somewhere else, farther back in the trees or avoiding their offspring that are looking for food, Jones says.

Yet the fact that we didn’t see an adult bald eagle doesn’t bother Jones. He has actively avoided becoming one of the bird-watchers who tally how many birds they see and use that to measure how successful a trip is. He feels like that takes some of the enjoyment out of bird-watching.

“It’s not about how many I see. It’s about the journey getting there,” Jones says.

Contact reporter Maggie Creamer at maggiec@lodinews.com.

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