Nesting eagles highlight success of restoration program

First pair in Santa Cruz County spotted near Watsonville lake

Glenn R. Stewart
Glenn R. Stewart, director of the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group at UCSC's Long Marine Lab, with Sophie, a peregrin falcon.
Eagle nest tower
The eagle nesting platform 30 feet above the Big Sur Coast.
(Photo courtesy Ventana Wildlife Society)
eaglets in nesting tower
Eaglets perch in the nesting tower until they're strong enough to fledge. (Photo courtesy Glenn R. Stewart)

Discovery of a pair of bald eagles building a nest near Watsonville's Pinto Lake highlights the success of a wildlife conservation effort begun 26 years ago, according to Glenn R. Stewart a UC Santa Cruz alumnus and director of the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group (SCPBRG) at UCSC's Long Marine Lab.

In 1986, Stewart helped move 12 bald eagle chicks from British Columbia to the Big Sur coast in a collaboration with the Ventana Wildlife Society. The six- to seven-week-old chicks were placed in nests on a platform atop a 30-foot tower, Stewart remembers. Volunteers fed the chicks for several weeks as they grew flight feathers and began to fledge after 11½ weeks.

"We were hoping for three nesting pair," Stewart said. Today, 20 pair are nesting on the Central Coast from Lake San Antonio in southern Monterey County to Livermore,  including the eagles in Watsonville, the first known nesting pair in Santa Cruz County. "It's a great success story," Stewart said.

Fifty years ago, bald eagles had disappeared from California south of Shasta Lake primarily from the effects of the pesticide DDT that caused their egg shells to fail. Earlier, eagles ranged throughout California and into Mexico.

To restore eagles to the area, Stewart and others traveled to the north end of Vancouver Island to find nests that contained two hatchlings. More than 60 nests were surveyed to find 12 that contained two chicks, one of which was removed from each nest. The chicks the size of turkeys were flown to California and transported to the Big Sur coast.

After the chicks grew to fledging size, Ventana Wildlife Society volunteers removed the sides from the nesting platform at night. Within days the eagles flew free, now imprinted on the region. Stewart said the first nesting pair was spotted in 1992 near Nacimiento Lake. Since then 19 more have been recorded.

According to Ventana Wildlife Society records, 197 bald eagle chicks have successfully fledged in Central California from 1993 through 2010.

"Peregrine falcons are back, bald eagles are back," said Stewart, who has been intensely involved with the SCPBRG's successful reintroduction of the peregrine falcon.

"It's the answer to the question: 'Is it futile to do wildlife conservation?' Not at all."

Stewart's been involved in wildlife conservation for more than 35 years. He graduated in politics from Porter College in 1973 then returned to UCSC for a second degree in environmental studies soon after the SCPBRG was founded in 1976. For his senior project he led one of SCPBRG's first restoration efforts – to re-establish the Harris' hawks to the lower Colorado River. That led initially to a job and ultimately a career.