Rare bald eagle returns to Newport Beach’s Back Bay, generating excitement


Robert Rollins was on his daily bike ride around Newport Beach’s Back Bay on Feb. 3 when he noticed a group of people looking at something.

It was a bald eagle in a eucalyptus tree.

Rollins quickly pulled out his camera, headed up the side of a cliff and started snapping pictures.

“It was thrilling to see a bald eagle again,” said Rollins, a Costa Mesa resident who is a filmmaker by trade, adding that he hadn’t seen a bald eagle in the wild since high school, when he went on family road trips through the western United States and Canada.


“They are stunning birds. But I was honestly surprised to see a bald eagle in [Orange County] because I thought their species were nearly [wiped] out in the 1950s due to the dumping of DDT in the ocean.”

Not too long ago, the state of the bald eagle in the United States was a perilous one largely because of widespread use of the pesticide DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) after World War II, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife website.

In 1967, the bald eagle was added to the federal list of endangered species, and in 1971 it was also added to the California list of endangered species, according to the site. In 1972, DDT was banned in the U.S.

There have been several efforts to reintroduce bald eagles in areas of California throughout the years, including the Channel Islands.

According to Peter B. Sharpe, who has been directing the bald eagle restoration project on the California Channel Islands since 1997 for the Institute for Wildlife Studies, the study has been focused on restoring bald eagles to the Channel Islands after they were eliminated by the 1960s because of DDT pollution that caused thin-shelled eggs that broke before they could hatch.

The efforts seem to be paying off.

By 1963, there were only 487 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the lower 48 states, according to Sharpe. He said that in 2007, there were estimated to be 11,040 breeding pairs in the lower 48 states.


“We have about 50 to 60 bald eagles on the Channel Islands,” he said. “There are about 20 pair nesting on five of the eight islands as of 2017.”

But the eagles don’t stay on the islands year-round.

“Most of our young birds leave the islands the first summer/fall and travel around the mainland from San Diego to central British Columbia,” Sharpe said, adding that the eagles are tagged as part of the reintroduction program. “Quite a few have been reported in O.C.”

Among them is eagle A-96 — named Kanoa by a donor of the institute — the one photographed by Rollins. Kanoa hatched at the Trap Canyon nest on the northern shore of Santa Rosa Island in 2014, said Sharpe, and has been reported in the Newport Back Bay on Feb 4, 2017, Feb. 10, 2017, and March 21, 2017; in Santa Ana Heights on Feb. 9, 2017, and Feb. 21, 2017; Irvine on March 22, 2017; Oak View in Ventura County on May 8, 2017; and again in Newport Back Bay on Jan. 26, 2018.

Another of the Channel Islands’ bald eagles was reported near Anaheim about two weeks ago.

OC Parks Ranger Derrick Ankerstar said that because of the variety of habitat types that exist in Upper Newport Bay, birdwatching is very popular in the area. Kanoa was probably attracted to the Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve because of the abundance of food — such as fish — and the healthy ecosystem, he said.

“Upper Newport Bay is home to nearly 200 species of birds, some living here full time and some stopping in during their migration,” Ankerstar said.

Orange County raptor researcher Scott Thomas said bald eagles are in a state of recovery — now off the federal endangered list. He said there’s a pair who have taken up residency in Irvine Lake for the past eight years for breeding and have had a couple of chicks annually.


“People see them around Irvine Park and around the zoo,” Thomas said.

There’s another pair attempting to breed for the first time in Anaheim Hills, he added.

“They were gone completely from Southern California,” said Thomas, adding that sightings are not uncommon now. “It is a huge success story.”