Saturday, February 24 , 2018, 4:57 pm | Fair 59º


November Marks Beginning of Eagle Season at Cachuma Lake

An adult bald eagle. (Roger Millikan photo)

When people ask me about the type of wildlife I see at Cachuma Lake, they are often surprised to hear that the bald eagle is on the list.

I grew up in Santa Barbara and had never seen a bald eagle in the wild until going on an Eagle Cruise at Cachuma Lake when I was twenty five. Now, having worked at Cachuma Lake as a Santa Barbara County Park Naturalist for over three years, leading weekly nature cruises, I have enjoyed countless observations of this magnificent bird.

There is a pair of resident bald eagles at the lake year-round. Sightings of these two become most common during “Eagle Season,” which runs November through February, a time when migratory, juvenile eagles pass through the area and the resident adult pair must defend their territory.

I have seen as many as eight different eagles during one, two hour Eagle Cruise. Lately, even with the lake at record low levels, eagle sightings are on a weekly basis and there is still enough water to run two hour cruises.

There are occasional cruises during Eagle Season that eagles are nowhere in sight, but that is what the wild is all about. The habitat is free and natural; there is no place we keep them, no call we can make to beckon them and no scheduled daily feeding we can plan to view.

The wilderness of Cachuma Lake is their home and they live by their own rules and routines. Whether perched in a towering oak tree, soaring remarkably high in the vibrant valley sky or plummeting into water in a hunt, sightings are always authentic and wonderful.

The bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is the national symbol and among the largest of birds in North America, with a massive wingspan ranging 6–7 feet in length and the female being typically larger than the male. They are not truly bald; rather, the word derives from an old Greek dialect meaning “white-headed.” 

In many Native American cultures, eagles are considered sacred, mystical messengers, and when you see their statuesque silhouette or powerful pursuit, it is easy to understand why.

Not always revered with such status, eagles were once on the brink of extinction due to loss of habitat, shooting and DDT poisoning. Since the ban of DDT in 1972 and protection laws put in place, bald eagles have made a significant population rebound.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, based on the most recent population figures, there are estimations of at least 9,789 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the lower 48 states. Cachuma Lake is one of the places you can now sometimes see one of these renowned animals.

On every Eagle Cruise, there is an abundance of wildlife to be appreciated. The Mediterranean climate of this region brings a long, hot and dry summer season, which forces wildlife right to the edge of Cachuma Lake for refreshment. And due to the extreme drought in recent years, the water level is over eighty feet low and many of the creeks and streams around the periphery are arid.

Herds of mule deer are a common sighting, typically seen grazing, relaxing in the shade of an oak tree or walking along the shoreline drinking water from the lake. There is always a chance of spotting a fox, coyote, bobcat, black bear or mountain lion from the boat too.

Fall also welcomes a variety of migratory birds. Waterfowl from as far north as Alaska begin to make their way down the Pacific Flyway and find sanctuary at Cachuma Lake for winter.  

In addition to the commonly seen mallards, herons and grebes, we begin to see seasonal diversity. Osprey, also known as “fish eagles,” perch in trees and hunt for fish above the lake, at times crashing into the water to grasp fish with their impressive talons.

White pelicans are another favorable sight for boat passengers, who are always delighted when a pod gracefully soars by, movements in unison. Other recent bird sightings include belted kingfishers, peregrine falcons, American kestrels, red-tailed hawks, northern flickers, northern harriers, buffleheads, wood ducks, teals, mergansers and more.

The boat is equipped with comfortable, padded swivel seats and a canopy for shade. Eagle Cruises are available November through February on Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings from 10 a.m. – 12 p.m., and Friday and Saturday afternoons from 2–4 p.m.

Reservations are strongly recommended and can be made by calling 805.568.2460 Monday through Friday, and 805.686.5055 Saturday and Sunday.

Cruise fees are $17 for adults and $7 for children ages 12 and under. (Sorry, no children under 4). Park entry is $10 per vehicle.

The park is great for an extended stay or day use and is fully equipped with everything you need for a relaxing lakeside getaway in the great outdoors: Year-round cabin, tent, yurt, and RV camping; boat and kayak rentals; fishing; the Neal Taylor Nature Center; bird watching; hiking; photography; picnic areas and a general store. 

If you are looking to spend some time in nature this fall and winter or to enjoy the gorgeous sights and sounds of the wild, come to Cachuma Lake. You may just get to see an eagle while you are here!

— Rosey Bishop is a park naturalist at Cachuma Lake.

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