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Sorrow for Jackie and Shadow, but two new baby eagles in Orange County

Orange County, CA - July 05: While the male bald eagle is out hunting for food, a tagged female bald eagle lands on a branch above its nest containing it's two juvenile eagles in April in north Orange County. The blue 85 tag indicates it is part of the Institute for Wildlife Studies project to rebuild the bald eagle population on the Channel Islands, was hatched in 2013 at Santa Rosa Island and given the name La'i. This pair of bald eagles is among a growing number of the majestic raptors reclaiming ancestral habitat in portions of urban Southern California. This is the sixth year these eagles have raised eaglets in the nest that was taken over from hawks. Scientists say these eagles are examples of the species' ability to adapt to extremes of urban sprawl including residential development and the roar of traffic and toxic emissions along a nearby stretch of the 91 Freeway. They are also regarded as special guests by adjacent homeowners who keep a close watch on them. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
La'i lands on a branch above her nest containing two juvenile eagles in July 2023 in north Orange County. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Southern California bird watchers saw a new and yet familiar sight in Orange County earlier this month.

The female bald eagle known as La’i was spotted near the Santa Ana River nesting with an adult companion and two eaglets, according to Peter Sharpe, the acting director for the Institute for Wildlife Studies’ Bald Eagle and Peregrine Falcon Restoration Project.

The eaglets are an uplifting sight as news has proliferated of Big Bear bald eagles Jackie and Shadow and their trio of eggs, which are now considered very unlikely to hatch.

“Southern California can be a pretty hard place to raise eaglets because of the environment and potential threats," Sharpe said, "so the success that [La'i is] having is impressive.”

Sharpe said La’i’s first breeding took place in 2018. Then she hatched two chicks and followed that with two more in 2019.

“I believe she’s had more, but honestly, I’ve lost track,” Sharpe said.

It's hard to say why La'i's eggs produced chicks while Jackie's did not. Biologist Sandy Steers recently told The Times that the Big Bear bald eagle couple battled cold temperatures with winter's severe mountain snowstorms, as well as high altitude, which means less oxygen for developing chicks. But, she said, "there are all sorts of reasons."

Read more: Big Bear bald eagles' three eggs probably won't hatch: 'Makes my heart hurt'

Only about 50% of bald eagle eggs hatch. And once hatched, they face other threats. Sharpe said two of the biggest are lead poisoning and car accidents.

Bald eagles are largely scavengers in their first year. They can eat animals that died of lead poisoning and then succumb to the same fate, according to Sharpe. He said the scavenging eagles are occasionally hit by cars as they’re feasting on a carcass.

La’i chose the Santa Ana River as her habitat because of the abundance of fish and other prey, such as ducks, geese and seagulls, Sharpe said.

Sharpe noted that La’i was naturally hatched on Santa Rosa Island in 2013 and was banded, or tagged, as a nestling that year.

That tagging system has allowed observers to spot her throughout the years.

The most recent sighting of La'i and two eaglets was first reported by the Orange County Register.

Bald eagles have been known to live as long as 40 years in the wild. And Sharpe noted that they may breed for 20 to 25 years. They may produce, on average, two eaglets per year.

Read more: Blizzard babies? Pip watch has begun for bald eagles Jackie and Shadow as storm rolls in

Sharpe said he was pleased to see the number of bald eagles rising in Southern California.

He estimates there are 10 to 15 pairs in the Channel Islands, about 10 pairs on Santa Cruz Island and eight on Santa Catalina Island.

Bald eagles were mainstays in Southern California for centuries until their populations disappeared from the mainland in the 1930s because of harassment and encroaching development, according to the Institute for Wildlife Studies.

The birds remained on the Channel Islands for 30 more years, but no nesting was recorded.

Sharpe and the institute believe the industrial pesticide DDT curtailed breeding on the island.

DDT was eventually banned in the U.S. in 1972, and its removal led to the return of native species around the nation, including pelicans and cormorants.

In 1980, the institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began to reintroduce bald eagles to Catalina Island. Since 1989, 38 chicks have been successfully fostered into island nests and 21 eaglets have been born, according to the institute.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.