The sunrise briefly paints the Sonoma coast in the softest of pinks. The Russian River and the Pacific Ocean reflect these colors for a few moments. A large bird cruises over the river mouth, her head a striking white against the backdrop, searching for her favorite food in the surf line. Her eagle eyes, among the strongest in the animal kingdom, spot a Pacific lamprey, a long, slender fish more than 2 feet long.
The bald eagle dives down, extending her thick yellow talons, talons as big as a man’s clenched fist. She can reach speeds up to 100 miles per hour as she angles down toward her prey. In a flash she has grabbed the fish from the water and flies to a nearby rock to eat her meal.
As a result of a concerted effort to breed bald eagles in captivity, along with a ban on DDT, bald eagles are slowly recovering, in Sonoma County and elsewhere. A bald eagle pair built a nest at Lake Sonoma, which was chronicled in 2001, and they have been raising chicks every year since then. Bald eagles arrived at Laguna de Santa Rosa in 2007 and have nested there every year. They have become a more common sighting near the Occidental Road Bridge, and north to Guerneville Road.
According to Larry Broderick of West County Hawk Watch, in 2008 a single bald eagle was spotted in Jenner, at the mouth of the Russian River. By 2011 he or she had found a mate. The first fledgling was seen in 2013. The location of their nest is kept secret.
This past autumn, a pair of bald eagles has been causing excitement at the mouth of the Gualala River. It is hoped this pair will nest in the watershed of the river. A good place to spot them is from the Gualala Bluff Trail.
Bald eagles build their impressive nests, called eyries, out of sticks on the top of a tall tree. Their nests are always near water, as they mostly eat fish, ducks, snakes and turtles. A nest can weigh up to one ton.
Joan Bacci volunteers at the Visitors Center in Jenner and she often has a front row seat for nature sightings. She says, “It is so much fun following them and sharing them with so many people through our photographs. People can easily follow us at www.facebook.com/JennerBaldEagles.”
Frank Coster is another fan of these birds, and he often sets up his camera on the Highway 1 pullout just above the Russian River’s mouth. One day he caught magic.
“I saw the bald eagle was approaching a sea lion,” Coster said, “so I started photographing, taking 12 frames per second. My view of the action was somewhat limited but I could tell the eagle pounced on the sea lion and was stealing something. I followed the eagle after the steal to where it landed on the north end of Goad Rock near the jetty, and saw that it had a lamprey. I was pretty excited with what I saw. It’s another reason that keeps us coming back out — you never know what you will see.”
The best time to see the Jenner bald eagles is between sunrise and mid-morning, advises Coster. If there are people on the beach, the eagles will leave, so the best place to observe them is from the Highway 1 pullouts just north of Jenner. Those spots give an elevated view of the river’s mouth.
Facts About Bald Eagles
1. Female bald eagles are bigger than the males, weighing up to 14 pounds and a wingspan of eight feet.
2. Bald eagles live 30 years or longer in the wild.
3. Bald eagles mate for life.
4. Bald eagles normally lay two to three eggs once a year, but only half survive their first year.
5. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act prohibits anyone from harming or disturbing them.
6. Their scientific name is Haliaeetus leucocephalus
7. From fewer than 30 nesting pairs in the mid-1960s in California, there are now nearly 400 known bald eagle breeding nests.
8. Why are they called ‘bald?’ The name comes from an old English word – piebald – which means white-headed.
9. Using thermal convection currents, bald eagles can climb up to 10,000 feet in the air, and they can soar on these currents for hours.