Volunteers will fan out around Lake Tahoe and train their eyes on the sky and trees and shoreline to try to spot as many bald eagles as they can today.
It’s part of a national Midwinter Bald Eagle Bird Count that monitors wintering populations of America’s national bird around the country.
Tahoe Institute for Natural Science is organizing the local count, an annual tradition since 1979.
Enough volunteers are needed to monitor 26 sites around the Lake for three hours and then report their sightings.
Robin Jones, an AmeriCorps volunteer working with Tahoe Institute for Natural Science, is spearheading that organizational effort. So far about 50 people have shown interest in the count and more are welcome.
“More eyes are always better,” Jones said.
Finding enough volunteers and organizing them among the 26 sites can be a bit of a challenge.
People need to be able to correctly identify the bald eagles. That can be more difficult than it might sound, because they don’t develop their telltale snowy white heads until they are five or six years old.
“Most people don’t realize that,” said T. Will Richardson, co-executive director and co-founder of the institute. “People will assume they’re golden eagles or something else, but lots are young bald eagles.”
Organizers are hoping for a good showing of bald eagles this year. Fifteen bald eagles were seen in a smaller area centered the mouth of the Upper Truckee River several weeks ago in the Christmas Bird Count.
The record count for Lake Tahoe was 18 bald eagles in 1988.
“We should be bumping up against 20,” Richardson said.
“I saw a photo from Carson Valley last week of seven eagles sitting in the same tree. There are lots of eagles around this year. I think we’ll have a really good count.”
Several breeding pairs of bald eagles call the Lake Tahoe Basin home all year.
Other eagles show up around September when the Kokanee salmon start to run, Richardson said. They stick around as waterfowl such as ducks, coots and grebe arrive at the Lake.
“They eat a few fish, for sure. But the rest of the winter they’re mostly eating waterfowl,” Richardson said of the eagles.
Known also for opportunistic scavenging, it can be an impressive sight to watch the bald eagles hunt. The birds have wingspans of 6 to 8 feet and can weight as much as 15 pounds.
Volunteers saw two bald eagles take prey on the Lake during the Christmas Bird Count. One eagle caught a coot, the other a grebe.
As the eagle approaches from above and swoops down, the waterfowl dives, holding its breath and trying to get away as the eagle circles for another try.
“The little bird has to hold its breath to stay under water and the eagle is huffing and puffing making these laborious swoops. It becomes a battle of lung capacity,” Richardson said.
Contact Robin Jones to RSVP for the count. She can be reached at 775-298-0066 or by email at email@example.com.