It’s 11 a.m. on a rainy Monday morning. I am sitting in the passenger seat of biologist Dave Bittner’s Toyota 4Runner as we drive down Rangeland Road in Ramona. Wedged between us are a pair of binoculars, a 60x scope, and a camera bearing a lens so bulky that Bittner has to lug a tripod out of his backseat to use it.
“There is a great blue heron over there behind that rock,” Bittner says, rolling down his window and pointing toward a minuscule dot in the distance. I squint and adjust my eyes. Still, I can’t make out the form of the bird. Bittner slows his SUV and hands me his binoculars. I peer through and see the curved neck of the bird.
“There goes a red-tailed hawk,” he says, motioning to my right.
In a matter of ten minutes we view 19 more raptors — five red-tailed hawks, three ferruginous hawks, seven turkey vultures, three kestrels, and one golden eagle. All are spotted on land maintained by the Wildlife Research Institute in Ramona, where Bittner serves as executive director.
Bittner is taking me to view a pair of nesting bald eagles that have set up their territory a half mile off Rangeland Road. It’s the first time in recorded history that bald eagles have nested in Ramona.
Bittner says, “We weren’t shocked, but pleasantly surprised to see them. It’s not unusual to see bald eagles this time of year. It was unusual to have them here for so long. They’ve been here since the summer. Three or four weeks ago our biologists spotted [the bald eagles] building a nest. It’s exciting. It shows that all our efforts are paying off.”
The efforts he refers to are the institute’s research and the Nature Conservancy–brokered land purchases that have preserved more than 3500 acres of natural grassland in Ramona. Since that time, the Wildlife Institute has seen a resurgence of nesting owls, golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, and now bald eagles. The endangered fairy shrimp, which live in rain-fed pools within the grasslands, have also grown in numbers. They in turn attract migrating shore birds.
Pleased as he is, Bittner isn’t quite satisfied. “We want the 70 acres next to us,” he says. “We are trying to raise $1.2 million to buy that. We would like to get private funds. But right now the state and everyone is hurting for money, so it’s tough.”
Bittner pulls his SUV onto the shoulder of Rangeland Road. Three eucalyptus trees stand in a tidy row half a mile off the road. Bittner motions toward the trees.
“Can you see the bald eagle nest?” he asks.
High in the third tree from the right sits an enormous nest, heavy and thick, resting in its branches. “It’s about four feet wide,” Bittner says. “I’ve seen ones that are eight feet. Those break the branches and fall. I hope that doesn’t happen here,” he says.
Bittner lugs the scope out of the front seat and sets it up on the gravel.
“Look, you can see the female standing in the nest. The male is nearby, hunting.”
I peer through the lens and see the white head and yellow beak of the eagle.
“We do hawk watches every year on Saturdays in January and February. It’ll be nice to have a pair of bald eagles. It shows the way the Nature Conservancy, nonprofits like ourselves, the Fish and Wildlife Service, county, and the states, can work together to make a preserve happen.”
He focuses the scope again, looking for the male.
Asked when chicks are expected, Bittner says, “A number of factors would result in chicks. You never know in the first year. It’s like people dating,” He chuckles and continues, “He has to be a good provider. She has to sit for 42 days, otherwise the eggs will get cold. The man has to come in and feed her. He has to do most of the hunting so she can get out and feed nearby. A lot of things can happen, but we are really hoping to see babies.”
Ducks and geese gather in the ponds off the road. Bittner notes that the eagles have been seen hunting nearby. He believes the water is a large reason that the eagles decided to stay.
“This part of California is pretty dry,” he explains. “There are no natural lakes. There was nothing to bring bald eagles here. Since reservoirs have been built all over the county, there are now water resources for the bald eagles to feel more at home. They are feeding and breeding on all the reservoirs. I think that’s what’s happening here; the bald eagles now have a food source.”
Bittner says there was a time when the numbers of our national bird declined severely. But the population has been rebounding for more than 30 years. “Bald eagles have made an amazing comeback from a time when they were endangered. In the ’60s and ’70s there was a time when they weren’t reproducing at all. They were on a downhill slide. After the ban in 1972 started decreasing the amount of [the pesticide] DDT in the environment, the few bald eagles that were remaining, a few migrants up in Canada and Alaska, and a few raised in captivity started to combine and reproduce. In California there are about 150 now. They are still being monitored.”
But neither of the Ramona bald eagles is banded — that is, neither has had a small metal identification band placed around its ankle by researchers.
“We don’t know where these birds are from,” Bittner says. “It’s a good chance they are offspring from Northern California birds. It’s hard to say. We probably will start banding them as they expand. It will be good to know if they are recruited from outside the area or if they are being reproduced by local eagles.”
On the short drive back to the Wildlife Research Institute’s field office, on the south end of the grasslands, Bittner spots a golden eagle on a rock near the road. His face beams excitement as he pulls over to snap photos.
“This [grassland] is a raptor hotspot. That’s why we saved it. We have 93–94 pairs of hawks and owls nesting. It’s a pretty high density. When you look around the trees you’ll see them nesting everywhere. Quite a few are owls.”
After taking several shots of the eagle, Bittner realizes that his camera’s memory stick is back at the field office. He hurries back to the office on Highland Valley Road, drops me off in the parking lot, runs inside to grab the memory stick, and hustles back to get more shots before the eagle flies off. ■