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Where to scope out bald eagles in Southern California

The bald eagle is abundant in the backcountry of Alaska, Minnesota and other northern states, but you don't have to trek far to get a glimpse of our national symbol, which recently took wing from the endangered species list.

Like many paparazzi-pursued icons, the bird of prey with the snowy white head has put down roots in Southern California, within a few minutes' drive of our crowded freeways and cookie-cutter developments.

Bird lovers and shutterbugs can spot the flourishing haliaeetus leucocephalus nesting, hunting and soaring near lakes and seashores in the Southland. Although bald eagles are more prevalent during their winter migration here, some have become year-round residents.

Catalina Island, for example, is home to about 26 bald eagles that nest and hunt year-round near the shores at Two Harbors on the less inhabited side of the island. In April, the island marked the first unaided birth of an eagle chick in 50 years.

"It's impossible to miss their big, beautiful white heads," said Leslie Baer, a spokeswoman for the Catalina Island Conservancy, which has helped rebuild wildlife habitat on the island.

Bald eagles have become so prevalent around Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains that forest officials now offer two-hour daily van tours, beginning in December, around the lake to the eagles' hunting and nesting grounds. There's even a Valentine's Day eagle tour that comes with flowers, chocolates and Champagne.

It's been an amazing comeback for the bald eagle, once a symbol of America's environmental failures.

From 1967 to 1995, the bird was listed as endangered in 43 of the Lower 48 states under the federal Endangered Species Act. (It previously had been listed as threatened in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Washington and Oregon.) The pesticide DDT was largely to blame for the population plunge that were absorbed by fish eaten by the eagles prevented the birds from producing calcium necessary for strong eggshells.

In July 1995, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service upgraded the bald eagles' status in the 43 states from "endangered" to "threatened." (Under the act, endangered species are afforded more protections than threatened species because they are thought to be closer to extinction.)

Last month it was announced that the reduced use of DDT, the expansion of habitat restoration and the help of captive-breeding programs had revitalized the bald eagle population enough to remove it from the threatened list.

The number of bald eagles in the Lower 48 climbed from an all-time low of 417 nesting pairs in 1963 to nearly 10,000 pairs today. (Hawaii is outside of the eagles' range, and the bird has never been threatened or endangered in Alaska, home to an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 bald eagles, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)

Some of the biggest populations of the birds are in Florida, Wisconsin, Washington, Minnesota, Oregon and Michigan, but the largest concentration remains in Alaska. Between October and December, eagle enthusiasts flock to the Chilkat River near Haines, Alaska, to see up to 3,000 eagles feast on salmon.

Bald eagles typically nest high in trees or caves near bodies of water where they hunt fish with their sharp talons. They can weigh up to 10 pounds with a wingspan of up to 8 feet.

Biologists note that venturing too close to an eagle's nest can disrupt the bird's reproductive process. For that reason, wildlife officials won't disclose the exact location of known bald eagle nests in Southern California, but here are places you may spot them in flight.

Channel IslandsAt least 40 eagles live in the string of islands that stretch from Santa Cruz, off Santa Barbara, to Catalina, 22 miles southwest of San Pedro. Most bald eagles in California only winter in these parts, but these eagles can be spotted year-round, said Annie Little, a wildlife biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service. Most of the islands — some fall in Channel Islands National Park — are accessible by boat and ideal for hiking, camping and kayaking, she said. Info: Catalina Island Conservancy, (562) 437-8555 or www.catalinaconservancy.org. Channel Islands National Park, (805) 658-5730 or www.nps.gov/chis/. Catalina Island alone is home to more than two dozen eagles, which can be spotted in tall trees by the shores near Two Harbors village, she said.

Big Bear LakeAs many as 30 eagles winter around this and other nearby mountain lakes in the San Bernardino Mountains. They typically arrive in November from Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Canada and Alaska, heading to Big Bear, Silverwood and Arrowhead lakes and staying until early April. Starting in December, the Big Bear Discovery Center offers guided van tours around Big Bear Lake to at least 10 spots where the birds nest and hunt. Info: (909) 382-2790, www.bigbeardiscoverycenter.com.

Diamond Valley Lakeand Lake HemetSeveral pairs of wintering bald eagles have been spotted nesting on the shores of both of these Riverside County lakes. Anglers have spotted the eagles nesting in tall shoreline trees and hunting fish along the shore. At Diamond Valley Lake, eagles can be seen from a hiking trail that circles the water. At Lake Hemet, campers and anglers have seen a pair of bald eagles on the southern side of the water. They gave birth to a pair of eaglets in May, said campground manager Mark Perinsky. For more information: Diamond Valley Lake marina, (951) 926-7201, www.dvlake.com; Lake Hemet campground, (951) 659-2680, www.lakehemet.org.

Cachuma LakeFrom November to February, park officials at Cachuma Lake Recreation Area in Santa Barbara County offer visitors a two-hour guided tour on a 46-foot pontoon boat to spot bald eagles that make the lake their winter home. In winter, visitors can see up to four bald eagles a day, but park naturalist Liz Mason Gaspar said eagles have also been spotted in the summer. "We get some pretty good displays when the young ones try to hunt on the shores," she said. To obtain additional information, contact (805) 686-5050, www.cachuma.com.

San Diego CountyScattered pairs of wintering bald eagles have been seen around Henshaw, Cuyamaca, Morena and Lower Otay lakes. Last year, a pair gave birth in an oak tree near Lake Henshaw. Info: Lake Henshaw, (760) 782-3487; Lake Cuyamaca, (760) 765-0515; Lake Morena County Park, (858) 694-3049 and Lower Otay, (619) 668-2050.

hugo.martin@latimes.com

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