Hidden Benicia: Benicia’s Amazing Bald Eagles

It was a huge bird, one of the biggest I’d ever seen. I had no idea what I was looking at. Fortunately a brown-haired teenager with “Seattle” stamped across the front of his T-shirt was standing across the street gazing upward at the same low-flying avian aircraft.

“Is that a golden eagle?” I asked him.

“It’s a bald eagle,” he replied, happily.

I turned back to this moving vision.

The distinctive white-feathered head and regal beak that have been featured on stamps, flag decals, posters and endless nature photos became clear. What a marvelous turn of ornithological events! America’s national bird, gracing the skies of Benicia!

We were on Primrose Lane, in the Southampton hills, not far from little Gateway Park.

The teen was busy taking pictures to show his dad, who was a bird watcher. I thanked him for stopping and catching my attention as he did, because otherwise I would have missed this smooth-gliding sight now vanishing like a dream into the open spaces behind the houses. 

This was the first and, so far, the last time I have seen haliaeetus leucocephalus around here, but since then I’ve bumped into other people who’ve put eyes on one. Benicia resident Ron Pizzimenti is a trail biking enthusiast who rides all over the place, including up the big hill overlooking Lake Herman where he’s made sightings many times. We exchanged emails after we met and he sent me one of his eagle photographs—its wings fully outspread, poised atop a leafless branch on a skeletal tree, captured in that split-second before it lifts into the air. 

To gain another perspective, I called Ok Kyong Hanrahan, who has probably had more bald eagle sightings in Benicia and the Carquinez Strait area than any other person. She’s a professional photographer whose gorgeous bird and wildlife images are on display at HQ Gallery on First Street. She was profiled in a splendid article by Jean Purnell in this magazine a year ago, and her eagle photo, captured in Benicia, accompanies this article.

Bald eagles are famously monogamous; they mate for life.

If you see one, you will likely see another nearby, his or her mate. And indeed, there are two bald eagles nesting on private land in trees near Lake Herman.  

“There are definitely two over there,” Ok told me. “They have a nest around there in a private area. I’ve seen them at Lake Herman, usually sitting up on the big hill. You know that hill? You have to go early to see them. Before sunrise, right after sunrise. I walk up there and I wait and I’m very quiet and I don’t move. That’s how I get the closeups of them.”

Lake Herman acts as a water source and hunting grounds for the birds.

Similarly, Southampton Bay in the state recreation area was a hang-out spot for two different bald eagles that lived across the strait in the woodlands between Port Costa and Crockett. The intrepid Hanrahan, who dresses in camo clothes to blend in with the scenery and not tip her subjects off that she’s there, would get up early to shoot that pair too. One morning she witnessed the astonishing sight of an eagle scooping a startled sea gull up off the water with its super-strong talons and having it for breakfast.  

A wildfire a few years ago destroyed the nest of this couple, who had a pair of baby baldies. They’re long gone now, leaving the shy twosome at Lake Herman to turn heads and excite awe whenever they are spotted.

Not long ago, I was walking in the open spaces near the Hastings Drive firehouse when, not unlike that brown-haired teenager, I encountered a man with a grayish-tinged beard standing on the path staring into the sky. “You see that?” he said like a boy who, after a visit to Macys, had just seen Santa for the first time. “There’s a bald eagle. I just saw a bald eagle! It’s flying east over the houses. Maybe you can see it.”

My eyes followed where he was pointing but it was too late; all that were left were clouds.

He went on, “I used to live in Evergreen, Colorado. It’s near Denver. There was this place in the hills we all would sit and watch bald eagles pass over. One after another. They’re huge. But to see one here in Benicia, that’s a first for me. Never seen that before.”