HOTEL CALIFORNIA ONE YEAR LATER, CHANNEL ISLANDS EAGLES ARE THRIVING.
CHANNEL ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK - The last time most people of the mainland saw any of the bald eagles reintroduced on Santa Cruz Island was June 25 last summer. A group of reporters and television crews flocked to the eagles' new home to record the release and first flight of our national symbol.
But a funny thing happened once the door to one of the nesting boxes was opened: Not one of the birds budged. And more than a few feathers were ruffled - among the people who had endured the hourlong 8 a.m. boat ride to be present, that is.
``I thought it was funny; some of the TV people didn't think it was so funny,'' said Jessica Dooley, the bald eagle project field manager and a biologist with the Institute for Wildlife Studies. ``They were hoping for this majestic moment.''
Instead, they got a bunch of bald-eagle homebodies and a stunning view of the Pacific Ocean as a backdrop on the evening news. Not that Dooley minded one bit.
``I said, `Look they're so comfortable, they don't feel like they have to leave,' '' Dooley said. ``I was happy.''
More than a year later, however, the eagles indeed have spread their satellite-tracked wings, covering hundreds of miles of territory over the five islands (out of eight total Channel Islands) that make up this national park off the coast of Ventura and Santa Barbara.
Seven of the 12 birds introduced last summer survived the year and call the islands home, a success rate Dooley said is high in comparison with previous studies. In addition, an eighth eagle lives in Yellowstone National Park, having flown the 1,150 miles from Santa Cruz.
And sightings of the bald eagles - the first at Channel Islands since the early 1960s - have become increasingly frequent among the kayakers, boaters and hikers who have traveled to the islands throughout the year.
``You get people saying, `Was that a pelican? What was that?' '' park ranger Tom Dore said of the eagles, who are best identified by the blue tracking tag attached to one of their wings.
An additional 12 eaglets arrived last week on Santa Cruz from breeding centers at the San Francisco Zoo and in Alaska. The project will bring 12 eaglets to the island every summer for five years, though the fanfare was considerably less the second time around.
``Last year, it was kind of chaos,'' said Dooley, who participated in two news conferences at park headquarters with the eaglets last summer. ``This year, we're keeping it more mellow.''
The eagle project is funded through the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program, which traces its roots to the dumping of hundreds of tons of the now-banned pesticide DDT in Los Angeles' sewers and Southern California's coastal waters between 1947 and 1971.
In December 2000, the Montrose Chemical Corp. and its former parent company agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by the Justice Department and California attorney general for $73 million, $30 million of which was set aside for restoration projects involving impact species.
And few species were hit as hard as the bald eagle, which had lived on both the Channel Islands and Catalina Island for generations. The DDT contamination, however, kept the birds from reproducing, as the shells of their eggs thinned, preventing them from hatching.
The last bald-eagle sighting in the Channel Islands came in the 1960s, Dooley said. The bird was added to the federal endangered species list in 1967, when fewer than 500 nesting pairs remained in the United States.
But the eagle has made a nationwide comeback since (a successful breeding took place this year at Lake Hemet in Riverside County) and its presence can be felt on Santa Cruz Island.
From almost anywhere on the coast, the two giant 15-foot-high hack towers that are the eagles' home can be seen. The eagles also have at least one caretaker at all times, usually Dooley. On a visit this month, a pair of the birds floated over a field on the route to the backcountry Del Norte campsite.
The hack towers, high along the island's Navy Road, are off-limits to the public, though Dooley said she gets occasional visits from curious hikers working their way along the grueling 14-mile trail between Scorpion Ranch and Prisoners Harbor.
``We get people who stop and ask what it is,'' Dooley said. ``But we really try to minimize any disturbance to the eagles. We try to maintain our distance.''
Dooley goes to such lengths as feeding the birds with tongs so as not to show any human presence. The towers also are equipped with one-way mirrors for observation. But visitors to the park islands have at least a reasonable chance of seeing the eagles.
In particular, Chinese Harbor, on the north side of Santa Cruz between Scorpion and Prisoners has turned out to be a magnet for the birds, near one of the hack towers and well-traveled by sea lions, Dooley said.
``What people like to see is the eagle flying down to catch a fish in its mouth because that's what we see on the Discovery Channel,'' Dore said. ``Most likely, they go eat a dead sea lion that's floated up on the shore.''
The eagles still are in their juvenile stage and are all brown in color for now. They will not begin to resemble the bird on the back of the dollar bill, with the distinctive white head and tail, for four years or so, Dooley said. They also will not mate until then.
Over the past year, one of the female eagles had to be rescued from the sea by two passing boaters and taken to a recovery center in Ojai. As for the bird in Yellowstone, he traveled first to Utah, then back to Santa Cruz, then the Sierra Mountains and on to Wyoming.
``They can go all over the West,'' Dooley said. ``That's the thing about these birds, it's to be expected. We also expect that someday he'll return to the islands again.''
The birds are tracked by satellite, giving scientists countless hours of data to study. Dooley said that the birds have not discriminated, touching down on all five islands in the park - San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa and Santa Barbara - covering the islands in dots when analyzed by computer.
Eventually, the park hopes to return the islands to their native state, with the eagles just one of several concurrent projects. While they restore the bald eagle, officials also are trying to remove hundreds of wild pigs that roam Santa Cruz, a remnant of its days as a ranching site.
Officials also hope the bald eagle will be a competitor to the non-native golden eagle, which has decimated the population of island foxes. On San Miguel Island, Dore said the number of foxes dropped from 450 to 14 in five years because of the eagles. Restoration programs for the foxes also are under way.
Overall, Dooley called the eagle project a success after its first year. Seven eagles, living on Santa Cruz Island for the first time in more than 40 years, with another 12 eaglets taking up residence indeed represents a promising recovery, she said.
``The survival rate for projects that have been published in the past has been anywhere from 20 to 75 percent,'' Dooley said. ``So we're doing very well.''
Ross Siler, (818) 713-3610
CHANNEL ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK
--Getting there: Ventura-based Island Packers (805) 642-1393 (www.islandpackers.com) runs ships year-round to Santa Cruz and Anacapa islands as well as seasonal service to the other three islands. Truth Aquatics (805) 962-1127 (www.truthaquatics.com) also sails to the islands from Santa Barbara. Reservations are required to camp in the islands and can be obtained through the National Park Service (805) 658-5730 (www.nps.gov/chis).
--What others say: The August edition of Outside magazine rates the islands as one of the top seven places in the United States for scuba diving. ``From crabs and snails on the surface to frisky sea lions in the understory, this is one of the most diverse and active habitats on the planet,'' the magazine says.
--What to watch for: Don't go to the islands expecting a respite from the sweltering conditions on the Southern California mainland. The thermometer hovered around 90 degrees throughout my two-day trip to Santa Cruz on Fourth of July weekend.
2 photos, box
(1 -- 2) Wildlife biologists Peter Sharpe and Dave Garcelon draw blood from an 8-week-old bald eagle as part of their tracking study of the birds after their release from the Channel Islands last year.
CHANNEL ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK (see text)