Bald eagles are majestic creatures.
Known for their striking looks and large size, bald eagles are a welcome sight for nature enthusiasts everywhere.
Despite being adopted as the USA’s national bird in 1782, bald eagles almost went extinct in the 1960s. Fortunately, their numbers have been climbing steadily since then, and the birds are now nesting in areas like Milpitas, Lake Chabot, Alameda, Ardenwood, and Del Valle Regional Parks.
In the Santa Cruz harbor, bald eagles have become a near-daily sight, and we love seeing them out on kayak tours with our customers.
In this blog, we’ll share the best places to see bald eagles in the San Francisco Bay area.
What You Should Know About Bald Eagles
Bald eagles are the national bird of the USA, but what makes these giant raptors so special?
Here are a few fun facts you should know:
- Bald eagles weigh 10-14 pounds and have wing spans of 6.5-7’.
- Male bald eagles are smaller than females.
- Eagles can fly at about 30 mph and dive at over 100 mph.
- Young bald eagles are dark in color but develop their characteristic white head and tail by about 4-5 years old.
- In the wild, bald eagles live about 30 years.
- Bald eagles only live in North America and are especially prevalent near coastal regions like the San Francisco Bay Area or large inland lakes and rivers that sustain healthy fish populations.
- When it comes to food sources, bald eagles rely primarily on fresh fish, which they snatch out of the water with their sharp, curved talons. At Kayak Connection, we routinely see the birds hunting in the Harbor to feed their young!
- When eagles can’t catch fish, they’ll eat ducks, small mammals, spawned fish, and other carrion.
What Pushed Bald Eagles to the Brink of Extinction?
While bald eagles once nested along the entire Pacific Coast, from the Aleutians to Baja California, there were only 487 nesting pairs remaining in the lower 48 by 1963.
By 1976, the eagle was officially listed as an endangered species – thanks to factors like habitat destruction and degradation, the use of DDT, and illegal shooting.
As eagle populations declined, conservationists struggled to save the species.
Fortunately, their efforts worked. By 1995, bald eagles were re-listed as threatened.
Today, bald eagles are protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which prohibits people from hunting, selling, or possessing eagles or taking their feathers, nests, or eggs.
The nationwide ban on DDT, which took effect in 1972, and restrictions on the use of lead birdshot and lead fishing weights also helped restore eagle populations.
As bald eagle numbers have increased, bald eagle conservation efforts have become more and more visible in the Bay Area and other parts of the country.
Thanks to those efforts, bald eagles are now a common sight in the Santa Cruz area, and many of our kayaking clients see them as their wildlife tours leave the Harbour.
When is the Best Time Of The Year To See Bald Eagles In The Bay Area?
The best time of the year to see bald eagles in the Monterey Bay area is winter and spring. This timing is ideal because it coincides with the eagles’ migratory patterns.
By late December or January, migrating eagles arrive at their wintering grounds in California after flying south from states and provinces farther North.
Note: While some bald eagles migrate, others are year-round residents of California’s more temperate regions. In fact, there are more than 1,000 year-round eagles in California.
Once the migrating eagles arrive at their wintering grounds, they breed in pairs.
Throughout most of California, the breeding season stretches from January to July or August. After the females lay their eggs, the parents alternate sitting on the nest for about 36 days.
Eagles mate for life, and pairs tend to raise two young at once. Once the eggs hatch, the parents stay with the baby eagles almost constantly during the first few weeks of their lives.
The 6 Best Places to See Spot Bald Eagles in the San Francisco Bay Area
Want to catch a glimpse of bald eagles and their babies?
These are the six best birding spots near Santa Cruz:
1. Santa Cruz Harbor
Santa Cruz Harbor is part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which makes it the best place for wildlife viewing in the Santa Cruz area.
What we love about the harbor is that you can see bald eagles from the shore, but you can also paddle out into the water in kayaks to get a unique look at the eagles as they fish, nest, or rest in trees.
Right now, we have a nesting pair of eagles in the Santa Cruz Harbor, which will likely hatch chicks as we go into the summer season. We’ve found that bald eagles tend to nest near blue heron nesting sites, including the large blue heron nest right near our kayak dock in the eucalyptus trees of the Santa Cruz Harbor.
In addition to bald eagles, the harbor is a great place to see migratory shorebirds, harbor seals, otters, and more. No matter how you view the wildlife, don’t forget to bring your binoculars and camera!
2. Muir Beach Overlook
Muir Beach is a scenic, quiet cove three miles west of Muir Woods. The beach is accessible by a 450-foot pedestrian bridge that begins in the parking lot.
Muir Beach Overlook sits just above the beach and provides a sweeping view of the Pacific Coast. This is an excellent place to see a variety of local wildlife, including bald eagles and migrating whales.
We recommend bringing binoculars to get a closer look at bald eagles who may be roosting in the trees along the shoreline.
3. Point Reyes National Seashore
Point Reyes National Seashore is an expansive area of over 80 miles of shoreline, home to more than 1,500 species of plants, animals, and marine mammals.
The area also offers a variety of landscapes, including open grasslands, brushy hillsides, and densely forested ridges, which are popular eagle habitats.
To spot eagles, we recommend hiking along one of the scenic trails in the area and bringing your binoculars to get a closer look at eagles who may be nested in trees.
4. San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge
Home to more than 30,000 acres of habitat for migratory birds and marine mammals, the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge is an excellent place to see bald eagles.
Bald eagles are a common site in the Refuge in the winter months and are best spotted from land or water with a pair of binoculars.
5. Sweeney Ridge
Sweeney Ridge, located in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is a hilly, sweeping hiking area made up of ravines, vistas, and overlooks just south of San Francisco.
The Ridge’s highest point is 1,200 feet above sea level, making it possible to catch stunning views of bald eagles hunting along the sandy coastline or nearby valleys.
6. Mount Diablo State Park
Mount Diablo State Park is an excellent place to see eagles.
In fact, a series of 2019 studies showed that the largest breeding population of golden eagles in the world existed within the vicinity of Mount Diablo.
For the best chance of seeing bald eagles, head up one of the numerous hiking trails that offer sweeping, panoramic views of the surrounding area.
It’s usually possible to see bald eagles hunting in the surrounding landscape or surveying the area from tall trees.
Helpful Tips for Viewing Bald Eagles
Want to see bald eagles in the Monterey area?
Follow these tips for successful and respectful birdwatching:
- Bring the right gear. The weather on the coast can be variable, and it changes quickly. Set yourself up for success by dressing in warm, moisture-wicking layers and packing things like a sun hat, sunscreen, and rain-resistant layers.
- Pack binoculars. If you spot a bald eagle in a tree or, better yet, a nest, you’ll want to get a closer look. Zoom in on the animals while maintaining a respectful distance by using binoculars. If you’re paddling a kayak or hiking, a chest harness can help keep the binoculars within reach without hampering your movement.
- Get on the water. The best way to see bald eagles is to view them from the water. If you’re lucky, you may be able to watch one swoop into the Santa Cruz Harbor to grab a fish or soar along the coastline. Boost your chances of a once-in-a-lifetime sighting by renting kayak equipment from Kayak Connection and getting out on the water, where eagles hunt and fish. Learn more about our rental program here.
- Be respectful. Even though you’ll be viewing bald eagles at a distance, stay quiet and respectful. Avoid shouting at or crowding the birds, and be mindful of areas where they may be hunting, to avoid pushing them out of their fishing grounds. If you see an eagle on the ground looking for nesting material or food, do not move closer to it. If barriers are set up to protect nesting trees, respect the barriers and avoid the restricted areas.
See Bald Eagles in Santa Cruz with our Wildlife Kayak Tour!
If you want to see the bald eagles that live in or around the Santa Cruz area, getting out on the water is the best option.
Fortunately, Kayak Connection is here to help!
Our expert guides will help you get set up with high-quality, properly-fitted gear to paddle the Harbor safely and comfortably or book a guided tour to see bald eagles and other wildlife and marine animals in the Santa Cruz area.