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JAUNTS : Special Boat Tours Area Where Bald Eagles Soar : The pontoon at Lake Cachuma gives passengers 360-degree views. A naturalist helps point out the majestic raptors.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It’s eagle watching season at Lake Cachuma near Santa Barbara. There, you can hop on a special pontoon tour boat with a naturalist and skim the waters in search of the rare, majestic bald eagle.

The chances are good that you’ll spot these enormous raptors. The eagles migrate south from the Pacific Northwest, stopping off at Cachuma Lake during the winter months.

Santa Barbara County naturalist Neal Taylor leads two-hour eagle cruises aboard the county’s new tour boat, “The Osprey.” The cruises run Wednesday through Sunday until March and cost $10 for adults and $5 for children under 12.

If you decide to go for a spin, here’s what you’ll find. The boat is docked at the county-operated Cachuma Lake Recreation Area, just off Highway 154. The county just spent $61,000 having the 48-foot flat-bottom boat built especially for nature cruises. It can hold 50 passengers in individual bucket seats that swivel for 360-degree views of the lake and mountains in the surrounding Los Padres National Forest.

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The lake, drained by the drought, is now fairly full. As you skim across the water--even on a rough, windy day the ride is smooth--a congenial Taylor tells passengers how he gave up a grinding career in sales management to become a naturalist and return to his native Santa Barbara.

He guides the boat slowly in and out of the lake’s many isolated bays in search of the bald eagles. At any particular time during the winter months, there might be as many as 25 adult and young eagles laying over at the lake, feeding on the large number of trout that swim and jump near the surface.

During the last few years, some of the big birds have chosen to remain year-round at the lake, building nests and raising young. Naturalists have counted eight year-rounders, and there may be more, according to Taylor.

Just how many eagles you’ll see and how close you’ll get is, of course, a whim of nature. But on a recent cruise, he spotted a total of nine bald eagles, some of them soaring so high that without binoculars it was hard to make them out. But Taylor’s exuberance with every sighting is catchy.

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“That’s courtship folks,” he said, as two young eagles high in the sky nudged each other. Their wing span is vast--six to seven feet.

Twice he spotted eagles roosting in trees on the shoreline just a couple hundred feet away. Their hooked bills and white heads were clearly visible--they aren’t really bald. To protect the birds’ privacy, the boat doesn’t linger close to roosting spots.

The bald eagles were once plentiful, but now they are an endangered species, victims of fish contaminated with DDT and human encroachment. Beginning in November, hundreds of them fly south from as far north as Alaska. Tagged birds at Cachuma Lake have flown down from the San Juan Islands near Vancouver.

The lake draws more bald eagles each year, mostly because trout--the favored cuisine of the big bird--are dumped weekly into the lake. The bird uses its rough, bumpy talons to pluck fish from just below the water’s surface. Sometimes passengers on the cruise see it snatch fish from its cousin, the osprey, which can dive for its meals.

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Eagles are known for their sharp vision. Taylor’s ability to spot and identify birds is stunning too. The bald eagle, he explains to passengers, has bare legs while the golden eagle has feathered legs. The immature birds are the same size but have slightly different coloring.

The bald eagles are the main attraction on Taylor’s cruises, but passengers see scads of other birds, including the osprey, egret, heron and magnificent snowy white freshwater pelican.

Birds aren’t all observers are likely to see, though. Herds of the small California coastal mule deer graze at shoreline. Passengers on one recent cruise witnessed a horrifying sight as a mountain lion attacked and killed a deer at water’s edge.

Details

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* WHAT: Eagle-Watching Cruises.

* WHERE: Lake Cachuma, located northwest of Santa Barbara off Highway 154.

* WHEN: Cruises run November through February; Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to noon; on Fridays and Saturdays, additional cruises run from 2 to 4 p.m.

* HOW MUCH: $10 for adults, $5 for children under 12.

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* FYI: 568-2460. Reservations are recommended. Dress warmly due to unpredictable lake breezes. Bring binoculars. The cruise is accessible to the disabled. Life jackets are provided.


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