Santa Maria Sun / Art
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 43
See them soarCachuma Lake offers wildlife-spotting 'Eagle Cruises'
BY JOE PAYNE
The bald eagle, apart from being our national bird and the subject of much patriotism, has come to symbolize triumph in its own right. The majestic bird has soared its way off the endangered species list and has been successfully repopulating its habitats for many years.
Usually calling the northern part of the United States home, the bald eagle makes its way south in search of warmer climates and more abundant food sources during the winter. The Central Coast is lucky enough not just to be prime eagle area, but to hold a spot eagles prefer: a fish-laden body of water known as Cachuma Lake.
Liz Gaspar, Cachuma Lake Park naturalist, has been leading the park’s “Eagle Cruises” for 17 years. During that time, she’s caught glimpses of numerous bald eagles.
“They are such striking looking birds,” she said. “I mean, contrast white head with dark brown body and white tail, and this bright yellow bill and feet.”
Only mature bald eagles yield the iconic white head and tail feathers, Gaspar explained. Immature bald eagles, while around the same size, appear more like a golden eagle to the inexperienced bird watcher.
“They are huge, but they don’t have the white head or tails yet,” she said. “And that’s the other thing: Bald eagles are really huge. It’s probably the biggest bird most people will see in their life.”
Cachuma Lake has been the home of a resident pair of bald eagles since 1989, Gaspar explained. A resident pair is two mates that have found a secure habitat in which to reproduce.
“There is a bald eagle nest off of Cachuma Lake on private land,” she said, “and the owner has taken a look and confirmed young there.”
Even the presence of one nest and the continual sighting of two eagles together don’t guarantee that it’s the same eagles. Still, Gaspar has her reasons for thinking it is the same pair, or at least one of the original mating pair.
“I have a picture on my office wall of a pair of bald eagles here at Cachuma and they are sitting on a tree branch,” she said. “And every year we see two eagles sitting on this same branch. Of course, they have other places that they like to hang out, but with that branch they have been pretty consistent.”
Cachuma Lake schedules regular “Eagle Cruises” during eagle season, which runs November through February. Any other time of the year the cruises are simply known as “Wildlife Cruises” due to the diverse array of wildlife seeable at Cachuma.
“It was an incredible morning today,” Gaspar said recently. “We rounded a corner and saw 10 bucks. That was one of the biggest groups of bucks I have ever seen.”
The “Eagle Cruise” title may lead some people to forget the diversity of the local ecosystem. Even though it’s winter—hardly the time you’d think to go out and enjoy the outdoors—the Central Coast’s mild climate allows many fauna a place to flourish.
“The lake is 20 feet low now,” Gaspar said. “While many people tend to lament, it’s really fantastic for wildlife sightings of birds and deer because they come out on the flats.”
The outings, which take place on the pontoon boat The Osprey, can fit up to 30 people. Each member of the expedition gets his or her own cushioned seat that can swivel a full 360 degrees, offering a full line of sight to any kind of critter that may caper by.
“I’ve done it a million times, but every trip is different,” Gaspar said. “We have bobcats, deer, great blue heron, white pelicans, grebes; I’ve even seen a bear swimming across the lake!”
While the scheduled cruises happen Fridays and Saturdays, groups of 15 or more can schedule a cruise for another time during the week, Gaspar explained. Children younger than 4 years old aren’t allowed on the cruises.
“It really is deeply gratifying to show people this amazing place,” Gaspar said, “and people protect what they love, and you take people out in this natural area and it’s amazing, and I think people take that home with them.”