Sierra Star

Bald eagle presumed dead

by Volney Dunavan
sierra star correspondent

     BASS LAKE — "Some of us fall by the wayside and some of us soar to the stars," the wise old baboon Rafiki sings to the animals in the Walt Disney musical, "The Lion King.” The Elton John and Tim Rice song, "The Circle of Life" says it all.

    Sadly, it appears that one who has recently fallen by the wayside is female Bald eagle Number 31, the great raptor who adopted Bass Lake and in turn was adopted by tourists and locals alike. Number 31 is missing and presumed dead. That's the news that is difficult to take. But the circle of life as illustrated by Bald eagles continues at Bass Lake.

    According to Laura Colton, a biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game, an unmarked adult female appears to have taken the place of Number 31 and is demonstrating a strong pair bond with the remaining male.

    As indicated in articles in the Sierra Star ("The eagle has landed,” May 28, 1999; “Eaglet experiencing teen's growing pains,” July 21, 1999 and "Eagles work double-duty,” June 23, 2000), the story began in 1993 when Number 31, as a two-week-old baby, was collected from a nest in Northern California and placed into a foster nest on Santa Catalina Island, one of the Channel Islands just off the southern California mainland. This was part of a project of the Institute for Wildlife Studies (IWS) which involved the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Game, and the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy. Its long-term purpose was to reintroduce Bald eagles to the Channel Islands.
    Wing markers

    After the baby eaglet fledged from the foster nest and before she left the island on her own, IWS personnel placed orange-red wing-markers on her, to allow for long-term identification from a distance. She was assigned Number 31.  The two markers, patageal tags, were located on the wing patagium, or between what would appear to be the shoulder and the wrist. Number 31 was also given a colored leg band and a federal Fish and Wildlife Service leg band.

    In 1995, Number 31 was spotted in Washington state along the Columbia River. Her numbers, as seen on the wing-tags, absolutely identified the bird.  And then, in the summer of 1998, Number 31 was seen in adult plumage here at Bass Lake. She was with another adult, adding sticks to a nest, probably what experts call a “housekeeping” nest. But, because it was late in the breeding season, the nesting was not successful.

    (As anticipated, Number 31 and her mate returned to Bass Lake in 1999. They nested and hatched one chick.) It was the first eaglet ever successfully produced by an eagle released on Santa Catalina Island and to the knowledge of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was the first eaglet to be born at Bass Lake in recent times. Bass Lake is ideal for bald eagles because the waters don't freeze and there is plenty of fish and water fowl.

    The birth was so exciting that Steve Welch, executive vice president of The Pines Resort, moved the traditional start of the summer season fireworks from the Memorial Day weekend so as not to distress the growing baby. It was feared that the nestling could become frightened by the loud noise and prematurely jump from the nest, causing serious injury or death. Or, even worse, the noise could have kept the parents away from the nest and their still dependent eaglet.  And, as expected, by the July 4th fireworks, the eaglet was old enough to not be disturbed by the festive celebration.

    In 2000, the pair of eagles returned to Bass Lake and hatched two eaglets around the end of March. In 2001, two more eaglets were born. The fireworks change remained in effect. This year, the bald eagle pair including the larger female No. 31 was spotted incubating eggs in February. But by the end of March 2002, with no hatchlings, it was clear that the nesting attempt had failed.

    And then on April 11, local bald eagle expert Mike Smith, a graduate student at California State University at Fresno, observed from a boat that both of the two perching eagles were unmarked. This was confirmed on April 12 by Ms. Colton. It is believed the male has bonded with a new, unattached female. The pair is being observed to see if they will nest.

    The bald eagle is native only to North America. In 1940, experts feared this national emblem would be hunted to extinction so Congress enacted the Bald Eagle Protection Act, making it illegal to kill, harass or possess the birds or to sell them or their parts. By the 1960's due mainly to development and exploitation, there were fewer than 450 nesting pairs in the contiguous United States and the bald eagle was put on the endangered species list.

    Pesticides affecting breeding lowered the population even more until the ban of DDT in 1972. Gradually from that point, the population began to grow. The bald eagle was moved from the endangered species list several years ago, and now is on a list of threatened species, where it is continually being monitored.

    Ms. Colton says no one knows what happened to No. 31. "She was a valuable bird" she says, as No. 31 was healthy and producing viable eggs. The bald eagle is long lived and mates for life. All agencies request that if anyone finds either of No. 31's tags or has information about the eagle, that it be given to any U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Game, or California Land Management employee.

    At the request of the U.S. Forest Service, the County of Madera has posted "no parking" signs in the nesting area, a quarter of a mile stretch of road near the Forks campground. All wildlife and forest agencies are requesting that people not stop or congregate in that area. For the more hardy, the soaring eagles can be seen in the early morning from some of the trails around Bass Lake. Otherwise, the best viewing places are from docks, especially at The Pines Village which is directly across from the nesting area. Mr. Welch says there are binoculars which can be borrowed at Ducey's Bar and Grill and a pay-per-view telescope has been installed.

    Also, the "Bass Lake Queen", The Pines Village paddleboat, has a one hour cruise every Saturday. The crew is versed in eagle history and lore and sometimes the majestic birds can be seen during the 3 P.M. voyage. The cruise will start daily on May 25th. Mr. Welch also assures that this year's fireworks schedule will remain eagle friendly in case the new pair produce a chick. Fireworks will be Thursday, July 4 and August 30, the Friday of Labor Day weekend.


    The reporter can be reached at or 877-3017.

 Copyright © 2002 The Sierra Star

49365 Crane Valley Rd [426] • PO Box 305 • Oakhurst, CA 93644-8621
(559) 683-4464 • Fax (559) 683-8102