We saw the first bald eagle gently glide above our heads at Lake Forest Beach just 15 minutes into our three-hour stint volunteering at the Mid-Winter Bald Eagle Count on Jan. 13. Organized by the Tahoe Institute for Natural Sciences (TINS), the annual event involves small groups of volunteers who head to a variety of locations around Lake Tahoe, binoculars in hand, with the goal of determining how many bald eagles are in the region.
Three of us, including TINS co-founder and executive director Will Richardson, snowshoed or post holed through the deep, fresh snow to our viewing spot next to the Lake Forest island — which is an island when the water is high or a peninsula when it is low. The wind was blowing briskly out of the east on what seemed like the first day of 2017 without significant precipitation. We spent the morning keeping our feet moving to prevent frostbite while scanning the tree tops for eagles. We were rewarded with a second eagle sighting about an hour and a half after the first one.
“I’m a long-time bird lover and follow eagle and osprey nest cams online, so it was super exciting to actually see two bald eagles in person,” said Kings Beach resident Joyce Chambers. “It was also a peaceful way to spend a morning on the beach observing the lake and clouds, far away from the post-blizzard craziness. I think it’s wonderful that TINS provides opportunities for us to contribute to their research and learn more about how eagles live in our environment.”
Richardson told us that this is the 36th annual bald eagle count; 26 stations were set up around the lake to find birds. Volunteers noted the time they saw the birds and any identifying characteristics. Then after the event, Richardson collects all the reports from the stations and determines whether different stations are looking at unique birds or seeing the same bird that flew by another station earlier in the day. The last few years they have been able to verify seeing more than 20 unique birds.
There are just three or four year-round nesting pairs of eagles at the lake. Eagle nests are most recognizable by their size. In fact, they are the largest nests of any birds. Ospreys also build big nests and are more common than eagles, so many of the nests you see along the lakeshore are osprey nests. Eagles like tall trees next to a large body of water as a nesting location. Tahoe fits that bill, but only in a few places, because nesting eagles prefer not to get too close to us pesky humans.
The rest of the eagles seen in the region are not nesting here, but have come to Lake Tahoe to dine. To say eagles are opportunistic eaters is an understatement. If it moves, they just might eat it. In the fall they will feast on the Kokanee salmon and other fish. Then as the fish supplies dwindle, they seek out ducks sitting on the water. (I wonder if that is where the idiom, “sitting ducks,” comes from.) They also find rabbits and squirrels tasty, don’t have any qualms about eating carrion and practice kleptoparasitism, as well, which is stealing the prey of other predators. Osprey, which are smaller, but better fish hunters than eagles, can sometimes lose a catch to an eagle.
Once the food pickings get thin, the eagles might take off to other locations, not necessarily someplace warmer, just where there is plenty of food. According to Richardson, eagles don’t worry about the cold.
“They are tough birds,” he says.
Perhaps that is why Alaska is home to thousands of them. Eagles usually live more than 20 years with some making it into their 30s.
I usually experience the Tahoe outdoors by doing something active: cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, biking or paddleboarding. For me, the eagle count was an opportunity to slow down and spend a solid block of time doing very little but contemplating the drama of nature around us. In between tree gazing for birds, Joyce and I tromped around the island and contemplated frozen ice paddies that were quite amazing, a phenomenon I don’t remember ever seeing at Tahoe. We also found the ice flags created by the brisk winds on the stalks of wooly mullein to be fascinating. Once we got outside the friendly confines of our windbreak behind the grove of willows on the island, the edge of the lake felt a bit like the frozen tundra of Canada or Alaska.
In addition to organizing the eagle count, the nonprofit Tahoe Institute for Natural Sciences is involved in a variety of programs educating adults and school children about the science of the flora and fauna of Lake Tahoe. It also conducts scientific research that is provided to local land managers so they can make management decisions.
“We also have a long-term goal of bringing a world-class nature center to the Tahoe region,” said Richardson.
TINS hosts regular events including Woodpecker Watching with Bird Tahoe on Feb. 11 and guided snowshoe hikes on Feb. 25 and 26 as part of the Alpenglow Mountain Festival.
For more information on TINS’ programs and how you can help, visit tinsweb.org.
Join Tahoe Nature Chase
Tahoe Institute For Natural Science formed Tahoe Nature Chase to encourage people to explore the Lake Tahoe region in search of designated, nature-observation challenges that are assigned each month. Challenges will be offered at varying difficulty levels, ensuring that participants with any level of nature knowledge can participate. There are five categories – plant, bird, wildlife grab bag, earth science and a bonus category. Those who are are plant lovers or bird nerds will find that branching out to learn more about Tahoe’s natural history can be fun.
This event is free and open to anyone, though TINS members will enjoy additional perks including private outings and prizes. | tinsweb.org