Nesting bald eagles a rare sight in San Diego (2024)

The large jumble of branches and twigs near the top of a dead eucalyptus tree was the first thing that caught my eye.

As I pulled over, and before I could ask, “I wonder what’s nesting there?” two pure white heads popped up, telling me that I might have stumbled onto nesting bald eagles.

I’ve photographed bald eagles in the rain forests of Canada and the coastal waters of Washington. Up there, they are as common as pigeons are here.

But eagles are not a common sight in San Diego, and nesting eagles are even more unusual. Stumbling onto a possible nest and seeing these magnificent raptors up close locally was more than thrilling.

Someone else who was excited at the possibility of nesting bald eagles was Phil Unitt, curator of birds and mammals at the San Diego Natural History Museum.

“Nesting bald eagles are relatively new here,” he said. “There was one record of a nest in San Diego County in 1930 and then nothing until 2005 at Lake Henshaw.”

After that, there were bald eagles nesting for a few years in Ramona grasslands, but most of the eagle sightings were of winter migrants.

“The bald eagle is a new arrival here as far as nesting, and it’s directly a result of raptor recovery when we ended the use of the pesticide DDT,” Unitt said.

The pesticide was banned in 1972 after it was found to be environmentally harmful.

One of its negative impacts was on raptors who fed on rodents that had DDT in their systems. Bird numbers began to fall dramatically because the pesticide kept eggshells from hardening, and birth rates were declining.

Bounty hunting of eagles in the 1940s also seriously affected eagle populations until it was banned in 1952.

Unitt said many bird species have not only recovered once the use of the pesticide stopped, but they have become urban adapters, and in many cases, exceed historical numbers.

“It’s exciting that we are seeing more nesting here. This is one benefit of our reservoirs. Under primitive conditions, there were no reservoirs and no fish here to support eagles,” Unitt said.

Local reservoirs have allowed the eagles to spread out geographically because now they have more available food.

At press time, it had not been confirmed that the pair of eagles sighted were nesting. They were occupying a nest, but Unitt said that does not ensure that they will produce offspring.

The female eagle was showing a wing tag, and a check with the United States Geological Service determined it had been tagged as a chick in the Channel Islands in 2015.

Hopefully, this pair will like the fish found in our local reservoirs and decide to start a family here.

Migrating eagles are more common here, with winter sightings at San Diego Bay, Mission Bay, Lake Jennings, Lake Hodges, Lake Henshaw, Cuyamaca Lake and Lake Wohlford.

As spring and summer temperatures thaw frozen lakes to the north, our winter visitors will be on their way, traveling as far as the northern Arctic.

The bald eagle is the national symbol of the United States, despite Benjamin Franklin’s desire to have the wild turkey as the national bird.

This proud and strikingly beautiful bird with stark white head and tail feathers and dark brown body is second in size only to the California condor. Females are typically larger than males, and wingspans can range from over 5 feet to 8 feet. They can weigh up to 13 pounds.

Bald eagles are fish eaters but will also feed on waterfowl and small mammals. They take most of their prey while in flight, and while watching the nest site, I observed the male bringing in a large trout scooped from a nearby lake.

They will hunt from a perch that gives them a good view and access to their pray. While hiking to a remote lake in the Eastern Sierra, I was lucky enough to watch a feeding bald eagle as it would soar over the lake, then dive down with talons extended and grasp trout with its sharp claws. What a spectacular sight.

Keep a sharp eye out when you are around water. You might be rewarded with an awesome sighting of a feeding bald eagle.

Cowan is a freelance writer based in Escondido. Email him at or follow him at

Nesting bald eagles a rare sight in San Diego (2024)
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