The Cambrian

Bald eagles, like condors, on the road to recovery

You don’t need to be a “birder” (a bird-watching devotee) to be excited about the recent releases of a dozen juvenile California condors in the mountains above San Simeon. Spotting one of the giant birds (with 9.5-foot wingspans) cruising on the thermals in our area is a thrilling experience whether the observer is knowledgeable or not.

Those condors were released by the Ventana Wildlife Society, which oversees the California Condor Recovery Program. The VWS reports that 87 condors are flying free in Central California, a remarkable number considering this ancient species was nearly extinct 30 years ago.

This is a success story not just for conservationists, but for society, given that humans were largely responsible for the condors’ near demise.

But flying under the radar — and often dwarfed by the breathtaking success of condors — another remarkable recovery story is playing out here on the Central Coast. Another iconic bird rescued from near-extinction also happens to be the largest bird of prey in the United States and is the America’s symbol of strength and power — the bald eagle.

VWS professionals are also responsible for the reintroduction of the bald eagle population to Central California. A peer-reviewed article published in the Journal of Raptor Research reveals that the bald eagle breeding population was basically zero in 1986.

Although the insecticide DDT was banned in 1972, it had a disastrous impact on the populations of numerous birds, including bald eagles; once the toxic DDT got into a bird’s bloodstream, eggshells were too thin to produce eaglets.

But thanks to Ventana’s efforts — plucking young eagles (eaglets) from nests in Alaska, British Columbia and Northern California, and releasing them in Big Sur — bald eagles are on the road to full recovery.

Indeed, by 2012 an estimated 30 bald eagle breeding pairs were living between Marin and Santa Barbara. In an email interview, VWS Executive Director Kelly Sorenson cautioned that the data are 5 years old, adding, “We say approximately 30 pairs since we’re not monitoring all territories anymore and are relying on accounts from others at this point.”

Sorenson, who co-authored the peer-reviewed article with VWS lead biologist Joe Burnett, emphasizes that the release site for the Condors — deep in the Ventana Wilderness — was used earlier for the bald eagle reintroduction program.

In 1986 one eaglet was released from Big Sur; in 1987 four eaglets were released. A dozen were released in 1988, and 10 birds were released in 1989 and in 1990. A total of 66 eaglets (36 males and 30 females) were released between 1986 and 1994, leading to the successful recovery of the iconic raptors.

I had an opportunity to visit the release site used for both endangered bird species, and worked with Burnett to clear brush for a large Condor fly pen several years ago. Having an opportunity to spend time in the rough-hewn structure (in the Ventana Wilderness) from which both programs were launched is a conservation highlight I’ll always cherish.

“The bald eagle recovery worked, and we’re on the same track for condors in the same region,” Sorenson said.

The original recovery goal was just to have four breeding pairs of bald eagles. But given the estimated 30 breeding pairs between Marin and Santa Barbara, “So far we exceeded everyone’s expectations,” Sorenson concluded.

More information on the bald eagle and condor recovery programs is available by visiting www.ventanaws.org.

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