As the pontoon boat chugged across the silvery surface of Pardee Reservoir, a call went out.
“Eagle at 6 o’clock!”
In an instant, binoculars were raised, eyes squinted, skies scanned.
“I see it,” said James Jones, the biologist leading the party.
“And there is another one.”
And one more.
High above, the bald eagles were wheeling, soaring, diving.
“Juveniles hanging out together. Like teens cruising the mall,” Jones said.
In the 1960s, spying a foursome of young eagles frolicking above a lake 30 miles east of Lodi was unlikely if not impossible.
Bald eagles, fierce and iconic, the symbol of our nation, were on the edge of doom.
But changes were made, poisons banned, protections adopted.
Now, across the country — and in the rolling foothills of the Sierra — the eagles are back.
A simple job: Spot eagles
Pardee, with 38 miles of shoreline, is closed for the season. There are no boaters, no campers or fisherman. It is eerily calm and quiet. Miles below, the valley is cloaked in gray. Here, the sun streams through a creamy wash of clouds.
Today is the national Eagle Count organized by the U.S. Fish and WIldlife Service.
The Pardee tabulation has fallen to Jones, a wildlife biologist with East Bay Municipal Utility District, which operates Pardee Dam. He’s joined by his daughter and son, Brianna and William, both college students majoring in wildlife-related coursework, and Lora Sparrowk, a ranger/naturalist for EBMUD.
Their job on this winter day is simple: Spot eagles.
At one point, there were few if any eagles to spot at Pardee, and relatively few anywhere in North America.
When the bald eagle was named the national symbol in 1782, the bird ranged throughout North America with a population of perhaps 100,000, according to the National Eagle Foundation.
The eagle’s decline, though, was steady and precipitous.
They were hunted and killed for many years because they were seen as a threat to livestock and salmon. The insecticide DDT decimated the bald eagle population. Others were poisoned by lead ammo, ingested by the eagles as they fed on carcasses.
By 1963, only 418 nesting pairs were found in the lower 48 states, according to research by the National Geographic Society. There was fear America’s national symbol would become extinct.
The publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in 1962 documented how widespread use of pesticides was destroying wildlife, particularly bird populations. The creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Act followed, and DDT was eventually banned in 1972.
Many states, including California, now ban lead ammunition for hunting.
There are an estimated 15,000 nesting pairs in the U.S. now, and the bald eagle is no longer considered threatened.
“The recovery of the bald eagle from nearly extinct to now is an awesome success story,” Sparrowk said. She and other rangers lead “eagle tours” on Pardee and nearby Lake Camanche this time of year, and they always fill up quickly.
“It’s often just freezing cold on the water up here in January. But people can’t wait to come out. They are fascinated by the eagles.”
Not like a Disney movie
The boat moved along Pardee Dam, finished in 1929, and past the water intake tower, a gothic concrete castle rising from the depths. It’s an essential feature of the system that delivers water across the valley and delta to 1.4 million people in the East Bay.
Pardee was built for water supply, but it’s prime habitat for bald eagles. The reservoir holds pure Sierra water that’s rich with fish, including rainbow trout, bass and catfish. It’s fringed by lofty gray pines and live oaks, offering eagles a fine perch for roosting and spying prey.
Bald eagles are renowned as hunters, and for good reason: Their blazing yellow eyes can see a trout from several hundred feet from above. They can see a jackrabbit from a mile away.
They are large and powerful, with wingspans of up to 8 feet. At speeds of up to 75 miles per hour, mature eagles swoop down on prey, seizing it with vice-like talons and devouring it or taking it back to a nest.
Oddly, bald eagles are also excellent swimmers.
Yet along with being adaptable, predatory machines, there is a less iconic side.
“They are scavengers,” Jones said. “They will eat rotting fish or rodents. They won’t pass up an easy meal.”
Motoring along the shoreline, Jones pointed to a distant gray pine holding a mass of sticks and twigs. An eagle’s nest. Nests are deep and heavy, sometimes 10 feet across and 5 feet deep. They may be used by generations of eagles.
Not far from the nest, a juvenile lifted off and soared, circled over the boat and coasted to a perch perhaps 200 yards away. A short distance from the juvenile, a pair of mature eagles could be seen in the woodland canopy, resting on the branches of a large oak.
Eagles usually mate for life, but there are reports of intruding eagles displacing one of the birds. And if one eagle dies, the other will find a new mate and continue breeding.
Bald eagles lay two or three eggs a year, and the hatchlings are in constant competition.
It is eat or perish.
“An aggressive hatchling can grab most of the food and a weaker one may die as a result,” Jones said. “Nature is not always like a Disney movie. It can be brutal.”
Rollicking through the sky
As morning stretched into the afternoon, the spotters covered the reservoir’s entire shoreline, noting loons, ducks, egrets, scrub jays, red-tailed hawks, and more eagles.
A single golden eagle was seen, its feathery, coffee-colored coat lighter than the mahogany-brown of the bald eagle.
Unlike bald eagles, which are found near water, golden eagles often roam over open fields and grasslands, speeding low to the ground, flushing out squirrels or mice.
The pontoon boat rumbled back toward the marina as the day drew to a close. There had been 11 eagles counted, each a testament to the resilience of nature.
Quite suddenly, the group of juveniles appeared overhead.
To the human eye, the youngsters were downright playful, rollicking through the sky with impossible ease, a study in unbridled joy.
Demanding, it seemed, that they be counted, too.
Contact Rich Hanner at email@example.com.