|No. 32 is a juvenile bald eagle hatched two years ago on Catalina Island. Photo by Adrienne Helitzer|
I immediately recognized the large raptor with brown plumage in the photos as a juvenile bald eagle, identifiable by its disproportionately large head and unmistakable huge bill. I could also see that it had a shorter tail than that of a golden eagle.
My friend, Adrienne Helitzer, had spotted the bird perched in a tall pine tree next to her home near the top of Bluebird Canyon in Laguna Beach.
“She seemed so content in that tree,” she said. “I’m sure she had a wonderful view of all wildlife below her.”
The bird stared in the window as Helitzer, a professional photographer, snapped photos. “It stayed in my sight for two hours that morning until it flew off, gliding across the canyon.”
Because the bird had a numbered wing marker, I knew that it would be possible to get information about it. I immediately thought about the eagle program only 26 miles away.
“No. 32 is one of ours,” said Peter Sharpe, a wildlife ecologist for the Institute of Wildlife Studies, who oversees the bald eagle restoration program that started on Catalina Island in 1980. The goal of the program has been to return native bald eagles to the Channel Islands after they were wiped out in the 1960s from the effects of the pesticide DDT.
From the number on the orange wing marker Sharpe determined that the eagle spotted in Laguna Beach was a female that had been named Shasta. It was one of two eaglets hatched at the Seal Rocks Nest on Catalina Island on March 21 and 22, 2013.
At 2 years old, Shasta is still considered a juvenile. She will develop the distinctive adult white plumage on the head and tail at about age 4 or 5, he said.
Sharpe, who personally banded Shasta as a nestling, said it was rewarding to see her in good condition. “She’s looking nice and healthy,” he said. “The first two years are the hardest, so she has a good chance of making it to adulthood.”
Eagles can run into a host of problems, including hunters, poisoning, contact with power lines and territorial disputes with other eagles. There’s a 50 percent mortality rate in the first year. Those that make it to adulthood have an average life span of 15 years in the wild, he said.
“The tags, called patagial wing markers provide valuable information on the survival rates, movement of the birds and even turn-over at nests,” he said. “The tags are light weight and treated like another feather. It doesn’t hurt them to have it.”
Because of her wing marker, Sharpe has been able to track Shasta’s whereabouts after she was last seen on the island in August 2013. She was spotted a year later near Nisqually, Washington on Sept. 10, 2014. This year’s sightings have been recorded in Harrisburg, Oregon on Feb. 16 and Laguna Beach on April 17.
“She’ll continue wandering for another year or two,” Sharpe said. And she will be old enough to breed about the same time she develops her adult plumage.
“Eagles tend to return to breed about 100-200 miles from where they hatched,” he said. “So it’s likely she’ll return to the area.”
Sharpe and his crew monitor the seven pairs of bald eagles on Catalina Island and about a dozen more pairs scattered across four of the other Channel Islands. Many of the nests currently have chicks and will be banded in the next 1-2 months. Two of the Catalina nests with chicks, and another from Humboldt Bay, can be viewed live on the Web at iws.org.
To report additional sightings of Shasta or other banded birds, go to reportband.gov.