The magnificent, majestic bald eagle is the national bird of the United States, but you’ve probably never seen one in the Bay Area — until this year. More than 25 bald eagles may be nesting around the Bay Area this spring, a return of these fantastic feathered creatures, which had been eradicated from the region around 1915.
But these endangered animals may soon end up back on the brink of extinction again. The recently resurgent bald eagle population, with around 12 documented nests in the Bay Area, faces an immediate threat in President Donald Trump’s recent overturning of Obama-era legislation eliminating lead from bullets and ammunition. Lead stays in the ecosystem and kills species like the bald eagle.
This is just as the bald eagles are returning to the San Francisco Bay Area.
“We haven’t seen them in the Bay Area that I remember in my lifetime, and I’m 67 years old,” meteorologist and amateur wildlife photographer Jan Null tells SF Weekly. Null spends his spare time chasing Bay Area hummingbirds, sea otters, and now bald eagles, posting photos to the popular Twitter account @ggweather for the Golden Gate Weather Service.
Null first spotted a single bald eagle in the Bay Area near San Mateo County’s Crystal Springs Reservoir about five years ago. Since then, he’s seen other nesting pairs at Pinto Lake in Watsonville, Sunol, and near Monterey Bay. This spring, a dozen pairs have been spotted.
That’s unique, considering the previous documented Bay Area bald eagle sighting was in 1915 in San Mateo County, according to a 100-year-old publication called Breeding Bird Atlas.
This year, a celebrated pair nests at an elementary school in Milpitas, drawing crowds every day.
“That’s the most urban area that I’ve seen one of these,” Null explains. “There are lots of ponds, there’s lots of fish, there’s lots of small birds, small ducks, loons, and stuff eagles like.”
And by “stuff eagles like,” he means “stuff eagles like to eat.” The combination of a wet winter and a warm spring has created an irresistible buffet of snakes, fish, and hatchlings that brought the long-lost bald eagles back to the Bay.
“There’s about one [pair of bald eagles] per county in the Bay Area,” Null says. “They’re not real widespread, but certainly going from zero to a dozen pairs is significant. It seems every year I’m finding one more distinct new pair.”
It’s not just the food that’s bringing the bald eagles back. There are more of them alive right now than there have been in decades, thanks to the slow but effective results of a 1972 ban on a pesticide called Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT). DDT was infecting the eagles’ food chain like mad in the 1940s and ’50s, killing off thousands and reducing the species to near-extinction levels.
“Over the last 30 years, the elimination of DDT as a pest product got the DDT out of the food chain that the eagles were dining on,” Null says. “So the population that did remain have proliferated, and their territories have spread farther and farther south.”
Bald eagles are back in the Bay Area and repopulating again. But does this mean we can catch a glimpse of them and their adorable baby bald eagles hatching from those nests?
“It’s about that time,” says Null. “It’s really hard to see if there are eggs in these nests because they’re so high up in trees. I haven’t heard of anyone seeing any eaglets yet, but this is about the time they would start hatching and being up on the edges of the nest and then learning to fly.”
If you really want to catch a glimpse of the rare bald eagles or their squee-worthy little eaglets, Null recommends dawn and dusk as peak hours.
“That’s when they’re doing their first or last feeding of the day and they’re heading back toward their nests,” he says.
The ample supply of food is fueling a population boom.
“A friend of mine up in the Puget Sound area from Seattle said they’re like pigeons,” Null says. “They’re very common. Whether we will see big numbers farther and farther south will be interesting, without getting into the politics of the Environmental Protection Agency right now.”
SF Weekly is happy to get into the politics of this. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke overturned all Obama-era regulations regarding lead in bullets and ammo on his first day in office. We now live in an era of National Rifle Association-sponsored “traditional ammunition” legislation, in which manufacturers can once again put toxic lead in their bullets. These bullets are used to shoot coyotes, deer, and other big game.
Hunting game is common and defensible. What’s less defensible is the use of toxic lead that spreads through the shot animals’ systems, poisoning predators like bald eagles that feast on their carcasses.
So enjoy the return of bald eagles to the Bay Area, and not just because they haven’t been here for 100 years. But also because our habitually golfing president has a below-par environmental policy that may shoot an eagle and prevent them from returning again.