Visitors to the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge may come across something unusual: a juvenile bald eagle. Robert Patton, Elizabeth Copper and Kate Goodenough, contracted biologists with the USFWS, were monitoring and counting birds in relation to the western salt pond restoration project when they saw the bird. Originally thought to be a golden eagle, at first, it was later confirmed that it was a juvenile bald eagle.
These raptors can take up to five years to fully mature and gain their white heads and tail feathers. They originally feather out as being all brown and gradually gain white feathers as they get closer to maturity. This particular individual was entirely brown and was identified by other features such as head and bill shape, and tail length and shape. It is very difficult to differentiate first-year bald eagles and golden eagles in the field.
This sighting is rare for the South Bay area with the last one being sighted right before the Bayshore Bikeway was constructed. But bald eagles are no strangers to San Diego County. They are occasional winter residents here, mostly passing through or staying until longer days and warmer weather allows them to move up north where they breed. In recent years, a few pairs have been found nesting in areas in San Diego’s back country. Bald eagles tend to be seen where fish and waterfowl, their main diet, are plentiful, though they will eat other prey if their usual prey is not available.
According to wildlife experts, increased sightings of these large raptors are a good thing and shows that many conservation programs are working. The bald eagle and other birds, such as the peregrine falcon, were headed toward extinction due to chemicals that prevented them from breeding. The eagles went from a common sight all over North America and plentiful in California to rarely seen. While they have been recovered enough to be given a conservation status of “Least Concern”, they are still nowhere near the numbers they once were before the 1960s.
The eagle in the South Bay may have only been passing through and was attracted to fish or carrion on the reserve and the area around the salt works. This area is currently being restored back to its original habitat. Since habitat reconstruction began, the area has attracted thousands of shorebirds and ducks all year around and is a popular area for birdwatchers.