THEY are known as George and Gracie, as in Burns and Allen, and each winter Doug Williams awaits their arrival from their northern habitat. He must seem like a tiny speck to the two bald eagles as they surge and soar above Big Bear Lake with eloquence and deadly aim. And that is how Williams feels as he watches them, like a tiny speck. So much of life pales against the marvels of nature, he says, against the workings and mysteries of the universe.
"We used to think that we were the center of the universe, and the sun revolved around us," the retired math teacher says. "The more we learn, the more we understand that maybe we're not as important as we thought." From nature, Williams has learned to view life beyond one's own existence, and that is why at age 87 he is a volunteer driver for Meals on Wheels, and why each year he awaits the eagles.
They arrive in late November. Gracie is the larger of the two, her head more rounded. Eagles are monogamous and mate for life. Their wingspans can reach 8 feet. No one knows exactly where in the north George and Gracie live, although eagles at Silverwood Lake, north of San Bernardino, and Millerton Lake, northeast of Fresno, have been tracked as far north as Great Slave Lake in Canada's Northwest Territories, according to research by the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group. They come south when the northern lakes freeze. Then, usually in late March, during daylight hours, they continue their migratory patterns and are gone.
On Saturday, Williams and other volunteers will bid farewell to George and Gracie and the other eagles that winter in the San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountains. Each year since 1978, the U.S. Forest Service, with the help of volunteers, counts eagles in the area. Saturday will be this season's final survey. For one hour in the morning, volunteers will be spread throughout the area counting eagles. February's count yielded 15 sightings in the Big Bear basin.
Williams has been a participant since the early 1980s. Initially he made the trip to Big Bear from his home in Running Springs alone, but then he started recruiting fellow bird-watchers from his area to make it more of a social event. "The eagle count only lasts an hour, so afterward we go down to the sewer ponds and watch the ducks," he says. "Then we have pizza."
Among his recruits are Kathie and Jim Sims, also of Running Springs. For Jim, the sighting of an eagle is always exciting. His eyesight has dwindled over the years, and he has learned to appreciate what beauty is left for him to see.
To see the eagles in flight, to see them dive at speeds of more than 100 mph, to see them ascend from the lake clutching their prey or locking talons in an act of courtship is to see rare magnificence, he says, not to be taken for granted.
"I get goose bumps every time I see one," he says. Jim and Kathie, both retirees, will stand with Williams near Eagle Point during Saturday's count, three tiny specks in the universe, with their eyes to the winter sky, anticipating, hoping for a chance to say goodbye for now.
Take part: To volunteer for Saturday's final eagle count in Big Bear, show up at 8 a.m. at the Big Bear Discovery Center, 40971 N. Shore Drive (Highway 38), a quarter-mile east of Fawnskin. Bring a watch and binoculars and dress warmly. The center also will conduct a tour to view eagles Saturday at 8 a.m.
Info: Contact Marc Stamer, wildlife biologist at the Forest Service Ranger Station in Big Bear, (909) 866-3437, Ext. 3216.
Also: Eagle counts will be conducted at the same time at Silverwood Lake and Lake Hemet.
Info: Contact Ranger Eddie Guaracha at Silverwood State Recreation Area, (760) 389-2303, and Kim Huber at the San Jacinto Ranger Station, (909) 659-2117, Ext. 2936.