Despite Ben Franklin’s preference for the turkey, most U.S. citizens share our forefathers’ enthusiasm for the Bald Eagle as a stirring symbol of many of the nation’s most enduring virtues. Free, strong, and proud, the Bald Eagle represents a people fiercely devoted to preservation of the values upon which the country was founded.
Today’s Bald Eagle also symbolizes much of the paradox of our nation’s history. Once on the Endangered Species list, it has made a dramatic recovery, despite persistent efforts to weaken or eliminate the Endangered Species Act itself.
Given its iconic status, it’s surprising how few Valley residents realize that Bald Eagles, especially during the winter months, are relatively common hereabouts. Most of us are only a few miles from having a good chance to see these enduring symbols of our nation’s founding and history. In fact, the Bald Eagle recovery has been so successful, the big birds are beginning to re-occupy their forming breeding ranges in California, which means they’ll soon be year-round residents.
While a Bald Eagle might be seen anywhere in the northern San Joaquin Valley, the best places are around lakes and reservoirs. Two reliable locations in Stanislaus County are Woodward and Modesto Reservoirs. Both have a day use fee of ten dollars.
Once in the reservoir grounds, look for the adult Bald Eagle’s unmistakable white head and tail. The eagles are as likely to be flying as perched. Carefully scan trees and dead snags, and don’t forget to look overhead frequently. The most exciting sightings are of adult Bald Eagles, but if you’re feeling ambitious, study plumages of immature Bald Eagles, which can be confused with immature Golden Eagles or even adult Swainson’s Hawks. There’s a thrill of accomplishment when you can accurately identify an immature Bald Eagle.
Keep in mind that Ospreys are also back from a severe decline, and at a distance they are easily confused with Bald Eagles. To be certain you’re seeing a Bald Eagle, verify the white tail, broad shoulders, and heavy bill. If you study both the Osprey and the eagle, there’s a good chance you’ll see both as they frequent the same locations.
Before the salmon runs ended, one of the most exciting local excursions was to the historic town of La Grange, in the eastern part of Stanislaus County. During the salmon runs on the Tuolumne River, Bald Eagles would congregate in trees along the river and feast on spawning salmon. Eagles still frequent the La Grange vicinity, especially around Don Pedro Reservoir and Dawson Lake.
As much a part of our natural history as spectacular winter concentrations of waterfowl, Bald Eagles add a special dimension to any region. Almost any Valley citizen has the opportunity to view this great spectacle of nature, and it’s a great holiday outing as well.