There are some creatures that are so charismatic and uncommon that a chance sighting of them is always a cause for celebration. A good example of one of these spectacular and seldom-seen animals in the Tehachapi Mountains is the Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus).
Since the magnificent Bald Eagle is the national bird of the United States, as well as being a de facto symbol of the country itself — appearing on most seals of the U.S. government — pretty much every American adult can identify one, even if they've never seen a Bald Eagle in person.
These giant raptors are unmistakable, even when you see them in unexpected places. They are very large: adult Bald Eagles average about three feet tall, and weigh around 10 pounds with seven-foot wingspans. Some get even larger — the biggest female eagles in Alaska can weigh 15 pounds and possess eight-foot wingspans.
With their dark brown plumage, snowy white head and yellowish bill and feet, Bald Eagles are recognizable from a distance. They only make an appearance in the Tehachapi Mountains in the winter time, and they don't congregate. The highest number I've seen or heard of myself is three individual birds at Brite Lake. More typically there is only one eagle, or occasionally two.
For several winters in a row, about 20 years ago, a Bald Eagle could be found early in the morning at Brite Lake, and then later in the morning, what was likely the same bird could be found in the White Wolf area around the Arvin Cutoff, in the general vicinity of the Bakersfield National Cemetery. The eagle had developed a talent for snatching ground squirrels in its big talons, and could be found many mornings perched high up in a massive old valley oak on Tejon Ranch property, waiting for a chance to thin the ground squirrel herd.
Though they are most associated with eating fish, Bald Eagles have been documented consuming more than 400 different species of prey. Following fish, waterbirds are the next most important food source for Bald Eagles and may make up as much as 80 percent of an eagle's diet in some places during some seasons. Typically these are smaller birds, like coots, mallards, grebes, etc.
Eagles who spend time in more arid inland areas like the Tehachapi Mountains can find ample food if they extend their dietary flexibility to include California ground squirrels. These rodents are abundant and aren't heavily preyed upon by smaller raptors, for several reasons: ground squirrels typically can dive into a nearby burrow in case of danger, they bite hard, and other squirrels act as sentries and bark shrill alarm calls to any squirrels in the vicinity if a predator is spotted. Because ground squirrels are strictly diurnal, they don't really have to worry about owls and nocturnal predators. Pretty much all predators prefer rabbits. Everyone likes rabbits.
With their powerful build and large size, Bald Eagles can attack and carry off quite large prey. A Bald Eagle that was verified carrying a 15-pound mule deer fawn is said to be the heaviest documented load ever carried by a flying bird. There is also a documented report of a parent Bald Eagle knocking a black bear out of tree that contained the eagle's nest and three young eaglets. So while they do eat carrion, and may steal fish from ospreys and other birds, Bald Eagles are definitely formidable predators.
Stallion Springs resident Kathy Baggett Roethler was standing by her kitchen window recently when "this massive bird flew past the house." Kathy, a recreational photographer, grabbed her camera, hollered at her husband Scott and they ran outside to see the bird. They saw a Bald Eagle with a ground squirrel in its talons, and it flew to a nearby oak branch and devoured the squirrel while being harassed, as they often are, by a pair of ravens. During the encounter, Kathy was able to take the splendid photographs that appear on this page.
Kathy and Scott have lived in Stallion Springs for four years, and the wildlife in the Tehachapi Mountains is one of the reasons they moved here. Kathy works for the City of Palmdale and Scott works at Edwards Air Force Base, and on their days off they like to go in search of nature sightings. This was their first experience seeing a Bald Eagle.
Bald Eagles were against the ropes in the first half of the 20th century, thanks to a variety of factors, including shooting, habitat loss, and egg shell thinning caused by the pesticide DDT, which resulted in most eggs breaking and catastrophic nesting failures. By the 1950s, only a little over 400 nesting pairs were alive in the U.S. outside of Alaska.
Protection provided by the Endangered Species Act resulted in a dramatic reversal, and now there are an estimated 150,000 Bald Eagles in the U.S., one of this country's most outstanding conservation success stories.
We know that Bald Eagles lived in the Tehachapi Mountains in centuries past, for there is a word for them in the Nuwä (Kawaiisu or Paiute) Indian language: pawik, pronounced pah-WIK. Among Numic languages, which includes Nuwä and other Paiute languages, the word for water is "paa" and the names of animals that are associated with water typical start with "pa" or "paa."
So with a long history of appearances in the Tehachapi Mountains, it is gratifying that Bald Eagles still return today to grace our winter skies. They can live for more than 40 years, so hopefully this individual bird will keep coming. . . .
Have a good week.
Jon Hammond has written for Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to email@example.com.