At the time, Rick Lewis was looking for some Virginia rails, along with some 15 birders. It was Dec. 24. Lewis is a patient man, and his head, he says, was buried in his camera. He was in the zone—the elusive waterbird zone. Then his world changed. “Somebody said, ‘Hey, there’s a bald eagle!’ ” Lewis turned, dubious—and saw an eagle in the distance, toward Alameda and the Fruitvale Bridge.
A few days later, on Dec. 29, he went to find the nest. Now, this was not Lewis’s first nest-hunting rodeo. He’s been birding for forty years, and is a skilled photographer with a very long lens. He’s spent weeks watching nesting birds of prey in the past. But on this day the eagles’ nest eluded him. He walked all around looking for it near where he and others had seen it fly. Nothing. He gave up.
Nearly back to his home in Alameda, “a bald eagle flew over my head.”
“Bing-bada-bing—there it was! I was astounded,” Lewis says.
Lewis knew it was a special moment. A nest in Alameda marks a win in the long, slow return of our national bird. Bald eagles disappeared from California’s coast by the 1970s thanks largely to DDT, the eggshell-thinning pesticide used to eradicate malaria. By the time eagles were listed as endangered in 1978, an estimated 30 breeding pairs were left in California, all in the northern third of the state. Lewis was among the many birders who have watched them return. He knew, for example, of the pair that have built a nest at a Milpitas elementary school for the past seven years.
“The fact that they’ve been there, and been successful, gives me hope that these birds in Alameda will be successful,” Lewis says. “As long as people exercise normal precautions and don’t fly a drone into the nest.”
For the past 10 days he has watched the nest almost daily, shooting pictures from a distance. On two straight days they disappeared and he got worried, but they came back. They are building a nest in a tree. “They are both very active and bonding, in gathering sticks and arranging them in the nest,” he says. On Monday he saw them preening each other. Lewis doesn’t think they have laid any eggs, because they are frequently both gone from the nest for hours at a time. If they do: incubation time is 35 days.
Lewis feels lucky, and protective of the birds—he asked Bay Nature not to share identifying details of the nest’s location. He does not use eBird or iNaturalist or Instagram, but has instead discreetly reported his sightings to local conservation groups and agencies. Sightings have begun to trickle in online, though. For a brief moment, before they become the toast of Alameda, these birds feel almost like “his” eagles. But it will be brief, he knows. “They’re hard not to notice when they’re in the air,” he says.