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Disturbing videos document flights near nests, possible collision with a pair of eagles, plus an eagle now missing part of its wing and its mate

By Miriam Raftery

Video by Billy Ortiz

March 12, 2011 (Lakeside) – Helicopters from the San Diego Sheriff Department as well as SDG&E contractors working on the  Sunrise Powerlink project are flying too close to protected eagles’ nests in Lakeside’s El Monte Valley, local residents contend.

Witnesses have compiled videos documenting their claims. The first appears to show two golden eagles falling below a ridgeline after encountering down draft from a Sheriff's helicopter—and possibly being struck by the aircraft.  The helicopter was along a ridge with multiple nests, sources report. A second video shot the next day on the ridge shows a golden eagle with a chunk of wing or wing feathers missing. The eagle’s mate has not been seen since, say observers.

A third video shot a few days later shows a helicopter for SDG&E’s Powerlink project buzzing near two eagle nesting sites, an action that three witnesses say occurred repeatedly on March 9th.

 View the videos:

Video #1 - Encounter between eagles and Sheriff helicopter March 3, 2011
Video #2 - Injured Golden Eagle March 4, 2011
Video #3 – SDG&E contractor’s helicopter flying near eagle nest

“We are asking for help in protecting these eagles,” Sharmin Self, a member of the East County Community Action Coalition, wrote in an e-mail to East County Magazine. “This area is a designated no-fly zone… According to the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, disturbing these birds in such a way carries a hefty fine.”

Eagles mate for life and use the same nests year after year, so loss of even one bird or nest has a significant impact on eagle populations.

ECM sent a link to the first video (before learning of an injured eagle), to the Sheriff’s media relations representative shortly after viewing it on March 3.

We asked what steps the Sheriff’s office planned to take to avoid flying close to the eagle’s nest again. We never received a response.

On its website, the company has stated that “SDG&E is doing everything it can to minimize the impact of Sunrise Powerlink construction and operations on sensitive habitat and species in the area, including golden eagles.” The company site states that it hired a leading expert to identify each golden eagle nest along the Powerlink route and that once nests were identified, “we will stay at least 4,000 feet, or nearly a mile, away from these locations during nesting seasons.”

But multiple witnesses contend that SDG&E has violated that pledge in the El Monte Valley.

Billy Ortiz, a videographer and hiking enthusiast, has filmed numerous videos documenting both golden and bald eagles in the area. Ortiz, 52, has been hiking trails in Lakeside for decades but never saw bald eagles in Lakeside until February, as documented in this video aired by Channel 8 News:

“There is a chick in that nest,” he said of one golden eagle nest site buzzed by choppers in the past week. Ortiz told ECM that while hiking on El Cajon Mountain (also known as El Capitan) on March 9, he observed an SDG&E/Sempra helicopter drop off a crew “about 2000 feet from golden eagles ‘nesting area.” He and other hikers say they shouted at the pilot to stay away from the nest.

An hour or so later, the pilot returned and flew even closer, according to Ortiz, who stated the chopper “came directly at us, hovered for a minute, made a u-turn and headed straight to the eagles’ nesting area on the southwest face o El Cajon Mountain.” He said the chopper repeated the maneuver multiple times “as if to taunt us” and then headed back to a staging area at the west end of El Monte Valley where “they dropped so low and close to the tops of homes in the area, so low they scared bar owls out of a resident’s tree.”

He said the helicopter pilot has been “making a mockery” of wildlife protection laws.

A second witness, who asked that his name be withheld, confirmed the account told by Ortiz. He confirmed that a yellow helicopter used by an SDG&E subcontractor repeatedly flew too close to the eagles’ nest, flying over an area with nesting birds of prey including golden eagles.

The second witness stated that the helicopter first approached the nests after dropping off a crew, then returned and “hovered directly above us for a couple of minutes, then took a new course and headed straight for the eagles’ nest that sits on the monolithic rock wall just north of the pronounced pannacle-shaped rock that points to the top of the mountain. It hovered there, then made tis way back towards us and then circled back for a second time to the eagles’ nest almost as if he was taunting us!”

The third witness, Pami Wilmers, has also confirmed the incidents.

ECM has sent copies of the videos to SDG&E for comment and requested whether the company plans to take steps to educate its pilots to avoid violating the no-fly zone around this eagle nest and all others along the planned Powerlink route.  SDG&E has not replied. 

We have also sent a copy of the videos to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the only regulatory agency with the authority to take enforcement action for disturbing an active or inactive eagle nest.

Self says she has notified numerous wildlife protection organizations requesting help in the past couple of days, and that the Animal Protection and Rescue League has agreed to write a letter in support of protecting the eagles. “PETA and the Audubon Society are sending it to their higher executives for their attention,” she added.

Local environmentalists hope that help will come in time to protect the eagles, particularly the eagle chick soon to take wing.

They also hope a federal judge may rule on a lawsuit seeking to stop the lawsuit on federal lands.

A new music video titled “El Cap Mountain Song” showcases the beauty of this designated scenic view corridor where endangered eagles soar, eagles that residents fear will be lost if high-voltage towers are erected across the face of the monolith.




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These video's were set up. Mr

These video's were set up. Mr Billy and Pam and whoever else was involved set the pilot up so he would get fired. It's Wrong! Who the hell goes out of their way to do something like that? Someone that has nothing else to worry about and has too much money and nothing to do but bitch.I doubt they even know what the word work means. Get a life.What are you trying to accomplish by getting one person fired from their job? Is your plan to get everyone fired? This is hilarious.

The US Fish & Wildlife Service imposed sanctions

on SDG&E after viewing the video shot by Billy Ortiz.  The pilot who was removed from the project by SDG&E was clearly at fault for violating the no-fly zones, as documented in our later story:   I fail to see how a hiker/videographer could "set up" shots of a helicopter flying far closer to the eagle nest than allowed in the project mitigation requirements.  Clearly, the federal regulators confirmed that the violations did occur.