Retired Ontario Police Officer Kevin Nelson was looking for red-tailed hawks to photograph. As he swiveled his camera towards the sky, the focus was much more dramatic.
“When I looked up I saw this bald eagle in a pine tree,” he said.
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The magnificent bird, with a brown-black feathered body, iconic head with white plumage and a pointed yellow beak, was perched on a branch next to an industrial warehouse just east of the international airport runway of Ontario, near the corner of East La Salle Street and South Carnegie Avenue.
“I’ve been taking pictures of birds in this area for 15 years, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Nelson, 55.
The Pomona Valley Audubon Society has been surveying bird species in fields near the airport for at least four years. Never has a bald eagle been included in the local bird count, said Suzanne Thompson, longtime fellow and professor emeritus of psychology at Pomona College in Claremont.
In fact, the empty fields east of Haven Avenue where Nelson came to take pictures of birds on New Year’s Eve contain one of the last remaining nesting areas for the Burrowing Owl, an extirpated bird species of concern that Nelson photographed 10 years ago, he said.
“It’s a bald eagle. You can’t dispute that, ”Thompson said on Wednesday, Jan.6, after seeing one of Nelson’s photos.
What is most likely the same bird caught the attention of Isaac Guerrero, 27, of Covina, who was having lunch in his car in the parking lot of the East La Salle Street warehouse. Guerrero saw the bald eagle on the same pine tree on December 22 and again on January 4, he said.
“He was there looking around for five minutes and took off,” Guerrero said. “I thought it was pretty cool.” Each time, he said, the bird flew east.
A bald eagle appearing near the southern border of the burrowing owl site is intriguing, although southern California bald eagles are not uncommon and no longer listed as an endangered species.
Bald eagles typically live near bodies of water. They hunt fish and waterfowl, Thompson said. “It is very unusual for an eagle to be there.”
Bald eagles have been found living near Silverwood Lake, Hemet Lake, Perris Lake, Prado Dam, in the mountains of North Orange County and most famous in the trees surrounding Big Bear Lake. There, a still video camera pointed at a nest for several years gives thousands of people a free view of two eagle parents, their eggs, births and even the death of eagle chicks. The 12 to 15 bald eagles in the Big Bear area remained stable, forcing authorities to cancel the seasonal bald eagle counts.
In 2016, a pair of bald eagles have been spotted nesting in a tree at the edge of the San Gabriel Reservoir in the Angeles National Forest north of Azusa, what experts have called the first breeding pair of American national birds in Los Angeles County.
But never in a field or warehouse parking lot in Ontario, experts say. So how did one (or is it two?) Come to this? And where was the raptor headed?
The experts don’t know. These birds were not banded, did not have radio collars, so they are free to fly and roam the countryside unhindered, without Big Brother looking at them.
Kim Boss, a wildlife biologist at the San Bernardino National Forest, guessed that the eagle Nelson saw may have made a long trip from Oregon or Washington and was just resting.
Or the eagle could have flown from the nest at Big Bear, perhaps in search of food. They have been known on occasion to eat rodents. While foraging, adult bald eagles can fly 100 miles a day and return to the nest, Boss said.
A female banded bald eagle – codenamed KO-2 – flew to Oregon and then to the Channel Islands from Lake Hemet, Boss said.
Nelson said he took photos using his Cannon D50 with a 300m lens for a few minutes until the bird left the branch and flew into the Jurupa Hills.
Perhaps the national bird of the United States on December 31 was saying goodbye to 2020, a most horrific year, signaling better things to come for our nation.
Or it simply spread its wings – at about 90 inches – the largest wingspan of any raptor.