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Cruising close to the bald eagle.

Fierce-eyed bald eagles are finding their way back to Lake San Antonio. This reservoir in the rolling, oak-dotted foothill country west of U.S. 101 halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles is hardly the remote wilderness most of us imagine as prime eagle habitat. Yet every year a small but growing number of eagles make the shoreline around the shallow southwest end of the lake their winter roosting grounds.

This is good news for people whose only close look at an eagle has been the portrait on the tails side of a quarter. This month and next, you can join a special guided tour on pontoon boats to get a close-up look at these raptors.

There's no mistaking the mature birds. With a wingspan broader than most men are tall, the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) ranks among the largest birds in North America. Soaring over the green coastal foothills or wheeling just above the lake searching for fish, they are a distinctive sight with white heads and tails that contrast boldly with dark wings and bodies.

Even their call is dramatic: a harsh, creaking cackle that falls from the sky like shattered glass.

Lake San Antonio's eagles are part of a migration that brings several thousand bald eagles from as far away as Alaska and Saskatchewan into Western States from fall through spring.

Last year, more than 800 bald eagles wintered in California, mostly at remote wildlife refuges in the northern part of the state, with a few straggling farther south. But the California Department of Fish and Game estiamtes only about 50 eagle pairs nested in the state last summer, an ominously low resident population.

Indeed, this bird of prey has been taking it on the beak for quite some time. Once wide-ranging and common (they were found throughout California just a few decades ago), the American bald eagle has been brought to the edge of extinction in most states. Our national symbol of freedom and strength has also become a symbol of vanishing wilderness and endangered wildlife.

Indiscriminate shooting and poisoning, destruction of habitat, and persistent pesticides such as DDT have all taken their toll. In the West, only Oregon and Washington have large enough resident eagle populations to list this raptor as "threatened" instead of "endangered." (Eagles are not considered endangered in the wilds of Alaska and Canada.) Passage in 1969 of the federal Endangered Species Conservation Act and the 1972 ban on DDT have helped. The steady decline in eagle populations leveled off, and over the last decade populations seem to have stabilized and may even be slowly increasing. Seeing eagles eye to eye

Although Lake San Antonio was filled in 1965, by the mid-70s only a couple of birds were sighted. But last January, volunteers counted 39 eagles roosting in dead valley oak snag along the lake's southwest shore.

Last year, the Monterey County Parks Department, in conjunction with the North Cuesta Audubon Society, tested the idea of offering guided tours to the nesting area. Park Superintendent Jim Davis explains why boats worked best: "Our eagles were easily disturbed by people approaching the area on foot, but in boats we can get close enough to the roosting area for people to get a good look with binoculars."

Naturalist-led tours are aboard 8- and 12-passenger pontoon boats. They'll be offered Saturdays and Sundary from January 14 through February 26. The 2-hour tours depart from the marina near park headquarters at 10 A.M. and 1 P.M.; cost is $5 per person for all ages. There is a day-use fee of $4 per vehicle or a $6.50 overnight camping fee ($9.50 with hookups).

Last winter, it rained almost every weekend tours were offered, so dress accordingly. Bring Binoculars (the guides usually have a pair or two to pass around). Among the other birds you may spot are golden eagles, Canada geese, Western grebes, and white pelicans. Serious birders will find that the boat really isn't the best platform for spotting scopes or cameras with long telephoto lenses.

Reservations are necessary for tours (expect them to fill quickly); to reserve tour or campground space, call (800) 822-2267 in California or (800) 824-2267 elsewhere. For group tours and information, call park headquarters at (805) 472-2311. Consider spending the night in Paso Robles or in San Luis Obispo.
COPYRIGHT 1984 Sunset Publishing Corp.
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Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Jan 1, 1984
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