Two hours east of Los Angeles, a vast blanket of white hangs heavy over the San Bernardino National Forest. Rolling clouds of moisture and mist cloak the treetops and can be seen for miles. The aroma of the beautiful trees surrounds us and the air is ice cold, making it the perfect kind of day to spend looking for a very special eagle named Jack.
“Boy, the snow’s pretty deep, but at least somebody made tracks for us,” said biologist Robin Eliason. As we walked across the crunchy snow banks, I asked her, “What’s the likelihood we’ll see an eagle?” Robin answered, “It’s fairly likely because I thought we saw one out on the ice.” Looking for Jack is something Robin Eliason has been doing over the past six winters. She’s been a District Wildlife Biologist with the U.S. Forest Service at the Mountaintop Ranger District since 1989 and is considered a leading expert on the American bald eagle. As we stood in the chilly wooded area watching for the majestic birds, Robin whispered softly, “Watch that eagle – it’s trying to catch food.”
Just at the water’s edge of Grout Bay in a town called Fawnskin, two American bald eagles sat side-by-side hoping for a meal of ducks and fish. Man-made pesticides and the environment weren’t always so kind to our national bird. In the 1970s, the bald eagle was placed on the endangered species list. With official protection from the U.S. Congress and the concerted efforts and perseverance of the Forest Service – an example of the American Spirit in action – the eagle population is now thriving.
Robin said, “At this point, bald eagles are doing so well. They’ve really recovered. They’re nesting in all the lower states, all the 48 states and Alaska, and so we continue to do the counts just because it’s so much fun. It’s a way to engage the public and an opportunity to show them a bald eagle, which is a really exciting thing to see.”
Each winter, the USFS asks the public to volunteer for an hour-long session to observe the birds as they soar majestically in the sky or sit in their nests. In the middle of my hour, I ask, “Anything?” “Yeah,” Robin replies, “Both adults are down there, and there’s a hawk eating some of their leftovers.”
The breathtaking view of Big Bear Lake is what brought Sandy Steers to the mountain. She’s a Hollywood screenwriter of action and adventure films such as the Rocky series who traded the traffic of LA for a spotting scope! Sandy said, “I was always doing the counts with the forest service when they do them four times a year. But after the first chick was hatched, I kind of got addicted to standing out with my scope watching the nest, and by the end I felt like we knew each other by staring at each other so long.” I nodded and said, “They know, don’t they?” Sandy replied, “Yes, I think they do, and they have really good eyesight.”
We watched at the shoreline as the eagles continued to eat. To put it into perspective, Sandy says an eagle’s eyesight is seven times better than that of a human – it’s so sharp that eagles can see a newspaper at the end of a football field! Hence the phrase “Eagle-eyed.”
Robin and Sandy say the eagles are so majestic and large that their wingspan is often 7-8 feet. Our cameras were fortunate enough to catch a few minutes of this majestic creature, recognized throughout time as a sign of strength, power, and independence. Spotters have counted seven bald eagles this winter in southern California. The breath-taking national symbol happened to line up in the sky on this cold winter morning with a commercial jetliner flying at an altitude of some 35,000 feet above the forest.
“Watching the eagles is just awesome. It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe. It feels like I’m privileged to see something in nature that most people don’t get to see, and I’m just fascinated with watching their behavior and watching the parents take care of the chicks and taking care of the nest. I have watched the chicks grow up and now I feel like I know them, especially the chick Jack. It just felt like he was saying ‘Hello – I remember you’ and knew I was there,” said Sandy.
Sandy felt such a connection to the eagle chick affectionately named Jack that she helped raise money to install a solar-powered nest-camera. The Bald Eagle Nest Cam carries a live video stream, capturing not only pictures but audio as well (friendsofbigbearvalley.org/eagle-cam.html).
Although striking in appearance, what makes Jack so revered that self-proclaimed “bird nerds” like Sandy Steers and Robin Eliason keep looking for him every winter is his beloved story.
We met Barb Roberts in a prime eagle-watching spot known as Windy Point. Jack, as it turns out, was her father’s name. Barb said, “He had such a love for nature and a passion for the grandeur of the mountains. He loved fishing. When there was a chance to see the majesty of bald eagles, he took that opportunity.” I asked, “And he shared that with you?” Barb continued, “Yes, he instilled that into me, and I’ve loved nature ever since.”
Jack Lubecki had a sort of spiritual connection with the eagles. He never missed a winter-count in 20 years. Jack would marvel at the shape of fallen snow on the mountain tops while patiently watching from Windy Point, which had the best view of the trees where an eagle might nest. The winter of 2010 would be his last, after which Jack Lubecki died at the age of 87. The mountain’s most seasoned spotter was gone. Not long after, Rangers watching the eagle-cam discovered a tiny beak and feathers peering from the nest. It was a big day, and natural that the new eagle chick would be called Jack.
“How important is it to come up here and continue that learning and legacy of your father?” I asked. Barb said, “There’s nothing like it, especially when I’m up here by myself because he’s with me. I remember one time there was a big family having a barbecue. He would get so mad at the noise. So, when I’m here alone, it’s the best feeling in the world to be close to him.” Sometimes it was just the two of them, and other days Jack loved to teach what he called the “newbies” about the American bald eagle. “When those brand-new people came out, he could give them the excitement of seeing an eagle for the first time and listen for the sounds, then we’d start searching, and that was his joy,” Barb said.
From December through March, the USFS holds several eagle-counts where the birds are likely to gather. Spotters no doubt will be looking for Jack and enjoying our enduring national symbol – the American bald eagle.
Mary Parks is creator and host of the weekly PBS television series American Spirit with Mary Parks. She is also an award-winning journalist.