It has been an exciting few days and I would love to tell you all about it, but this one will take some time.
You see, as the Bald Eagle population continues to recover and eagles reclaim land that has been eagleless for decades, there are bound to be more unfortunate encounters between eagles and objects, automobiles and troubled human beings. Those encounters may leave an eagle in need of some life-saving care. When those occasions arrive the sick or injured bird is often rescued by a caring individual and taken to a local facility dedicated to the restoration and rehabilitation of injured wildlife. There are many of these facilities across the nation. Most are quite small and may serve only as a triage center for severely injured birds. Others are somewhat larger and able to provide more aggressive emergency medical care and even long term rehabilitation. A very few are even larger facilities with extensive grounds, educational arms and a mission to promote wildlife conservation to everyday Americans.
But they all have one thing in common. They are staffed with very dedicated people, many of whom are volunteers. It is to these kind-hearted vessels of restoration across our country that I dedicate this posting.
A couple of postings ago I mentioned a man named Mike who had rescued a first-year juvenile Bald Eagle in the Dayton area. This is the rest of the story as I understand it.
The 8-month old bird was in dire straits. It was severely malnourished and very weak. While hiking not far from his home Mike discovered the youngster on the ground near an abandoned building. He phoned his wife and before long the two of them had recovered the bird with the use of a blanket. With the precious bundle safely inside a cardboard box they made their way to The Glen Helen Raptor Center in nearby Yellow Springs, Ohio. There the bird was examined and found to be near starvation, dehydrated and suffering from a few other issues. The youngster also has a very slight, right tilt to the descending hook of its upper beak. [Some eagles have severely crossed beaks where the hook of the upper beak overhangs the side of the lower beak making feeding extremely difficult.] The “little” eagle would spend the better part of the next two months in the care of the GHRC staff. Good medical care, a lot of fish and even more TLC began to make a big difference in this once failing and fragile life. (Did I mention a LOT of fish?)
That brings us to last week when I received an email from the raptor center saying that the little guy was ready for release! They were wanting a recommendation for a possible release site. Young eagles need companionship and education to hone their social and hunting skills. It was possible that this particular eagle was not so hot in the hunting department which possibly led to its nutritional issues. (One thing young eagles do not need in human contact and all of the hazards that our inventions can bring. Because they are so social it is easy for eagles to become “imprinted” by human contact. They are opportunistic by nature and can easily become dependent on human provisions. Imprinted birds are often doomed birds because they will eventually approach an non-eagle-friendly person or simply starve. Eagle rehabilitation people take great care in limiting interaction with their patients, some use eagle puppets and other measures to avoid the dangers of the animal becoming too accustomed to human beings.) Since they do not know from what nest this eagle had fledged their desire was to return the bird to an area somewhat near to where it had been found. There are two parks within Montgomery County that have had recent eagle activity, Englewood and Eastwood. But the main Lake at Englewood has dried up the eagles there have moved on. That left Eastwood Lake and Jim and Cindy. Over the years our eagles have been very tolerant of passing juveniles when there are no eggs or eaglets in the nest so I recommended we release him there. Due to a predicted change in the weather to more seasonal temperatures and precipitation, we decide to release the juvenile on Monday afternoon at 2.
(At this point in the story let’s have a little fun! Many of you, most likely most of you, have never taken part in an eagle release and unfortunately probably never will. So let’s change that right now! As you read the rest of this blog put yourself in the story. Grab your jacket and let’s experience the joy of feathers, flight and freedom together!)
It is Monday morning and the sun is shining brightly as we make our way to Eastwood Lake! What a beautiful day for an eagle release! We know that it is still several hours until the 2 o’clock release time but who can sit at home on a day like this? We feel like kids on Christmas morning as the anticipation builds! We run over a mental checklist in our minds as we drive towards the park: We have notified the MetroPark office of our plans. We have confirmed that all systems are go at the raptor center. We have notified the rest of the Eastwood Eagle Watchers group so we can document the activity for everyone. We notified Mike that the eagle he rescued is ready to go. We have our cameras and binoculars. Shoes! Where’s my shoes? I forgot to put on shoes.-OK that last part was just silly. I will have to delete that silliness later.- We are almost at the entrance to the park when our car pulls into McDonald’s for coffee, almost out of habit. Proper nourishment is essential!
As we enter the Eastwood Lake area day has broken and the shroud of night has lifted. A lone buck ambles slowly across the entrance road and heads into the wood to rest for the day. The fresh air flowing into the car through the open windows is invigorating and comforting at the same time. We are struck by the silent calm of the early morning. Even the robins are quiet. As we drive down the road we search the treetops hoping to spot Jim or Cindy on their morning patrol. The branches are bare of leaves and eagles. “How will they react to this juvenile?” we wonder. We drive slowly to the back corner of the lake where a lone Great Blue Heron stands motionless, ankle-deep in the lagoon. The sunbeams cast long shadows across the placid water and we stop for a moment just to cherish the scene.
We drive back to the front of the park and stop the car, turn off the motor and open up our coffees. Aaaaah.
From here we can view Jim and Cindy working on the Treetop Palace 1/2 mile away. Just a stick or two for now but in a few weeks it will become their obsession! We spend the next several hours in conversation, observation and anticipation. You are wondering what to expect. “You know,” I explain, “some of the larger raptor facilities maintain their own hacking towers. They are large platforms on tall legs that are used to release rehabilitated eagles. Some are quite elaborate with wooden enclosures that allow the eagle to better acclimate to its surroundings before being released. The doors of the some enclosures can be opened remotely so the eagle has even less human exposure. These hacking towers are in remote locations, as far from people as possible. Other releases are not so impressive. Most groups simply remove the eagle from its transport crate, uncover its eyes and toss it into the air. Since young eagles sometimes struggle to get airborne from the ground, the use of an elevated platform, even if it is just a few feet high, will help.”
Before long our cups are empty and our bladders are full. As we walk to the restroom facility farther down the lake we notice how still the air is. (A little breeze would be a helpful thing for the freed bird.) We also note that the local residents are beginning to stir. A groundhog munches away on a hillside as if he has heard the weather forecast for more seasonal temperatures later in the week. The once silent robins are singing and chasing each other from tree to tree. The Canada Geese are “redecorating” the pavement in front of us and part like a honking Red Sea as we approach. Near the water’s edge a Belted Kingfisher scolds us for disturbing his concentration. We smile.
The hours quickly pass and it is 1:30! We see Roger’s familiar Jeep enter the park. Soon Lisa, Crystal and others arrive. We notice a group of four cars that have parked in the small lot 100 feet to the west and walk that way. We discover that this is Mike, his wife and a couple of his friends who have come to see the release. We complete a round or two of introductions and enjoy some pleasant conversation until we notice the vehicle from Glen Helen entering the park. Show time!
As Betty, Rebecca and Kyle emerge from the car, your eyes, like the eyes of the rest of those waiting, are drawn to the large, sheet-draped crate in the back. After another brief round of introductions Betty asks, “Have you seen the adults today?” We relate a little of the short nest-building sighting from earlier, then the conversation quickly turns. “Where should we do this?” The obvious answer is in the open lawn/meadow area in the middle of the park, farthest away from any traffic, with the lake on the north and The Mad River to the south. We hastily relocate to that area. Kyle and Rebecca carefully remove the large crate, still covered, from the back of the vehicle and place it on top of the large concrete picnic table nearby in hopes that even that slight elevation may help the youngster out. At this point the anticipation spreads like an epidemic as witnessed by the smiles on each face as we position ourselves behind, and well to the side of the veiled treasure chest before us. With cameras ready and hearts stopped the moment has arrived.
Kyle does the honors.
The sheet is whisked away. The box shakes from within. The top of a dark brown feathered head can be seen moving past the side vents and heading toward the wire door. The latch is raised, the door is pulled fully open and without a moment’s hesitation feathers, flight and freedom!
One huge step followed by one long lunge!
At one point his wingtips brush the blades of grass and his head is all but hidden between his dark, majestic wings. Even though the grass is short the blades move with the impact of the air beneath those massive wings.
The camera shutters sing a triumphant hymn as a few more powerful flaps add a little altitude to his flight path and we cheer him on!
In just a few seconds he is 10 feet in the air and moving gracefully. He gains another 10 feet, banks left and then right and heads for a large tree in the center of the green space. There he lands on a suitable limb and looks back at us with gratitude and attitude. Our hearts begin beating again.
And there he stays looking quite pleased with himself and a little surprised. I look at you and your expression says it all. How many people ever get to witness something like this? What a privilege! What a blessing!
Slowly we move a bit closer to admire this wonder of Creation. The strength, power and grace in these young wings is simply breathtaking. As we watch from a respectable distance we join in the conversation around us. We are all amazed and grateful. The young eagle has done all the work of the last few moments but we are glad to have played a small part in it. “What now?” you ask. We don’t know. It is totally up to the that guy up in the tree. Wildlife is wild. It does what it does without asking for our consent. I have seen videos of some released adults that fly over the distant trees and on to parts unknown. The juvenile releases I have personally witnessed are pretty much like this one: a short flight followed by a long perch. This eagle was well fed before its release so the motivation of hunger is a day away. If it sees another eagle pass by it will likely join it for a little social interaction. It may be chased from its perch by a small murder of crows or an angry Red-Tailed Hawk. (Indeed the local Red-Tail passed over the tree shortly after the eagle’s arrival to the perch, so it is already aware of his presence here.) Adults don’t seem too agitated by protesting birds but juveniles are not so confident in their power and standing. Personally, knowing that all migrating birds have an internal GPS system, I believe that the uncaged juvies need time to reset the system and get their bearings.
So there he sits and there we stand. Slowly the crowd begins to dwindle. A few park goers are drawn to the activity and each of them are amazed at the sheer size of the eagle. Each one wants to snap an image on their cell phone. Each one has questions. So many questions. There are people of different social and racial groups but they are all curious. Isn’t it interesting how nature brings people together.
We stand there trying to capture every moment of this opportunity knowing that at any second he may spread his wings and end this encounter. We are also aware of the young eagle’s vulnerability as it sits low in this tree in a public park. Some animals can be nighttime threats to a young eagle but our greater concern is for the dangers of negative human intervention. How anyone can hurt one of these birds is beyond me and even though it is a federal offense to disturb them, it happens. A well meaning person may think this eagle in its uncommon perch is in need of assistance. And so we linger as shadows grow longer and darkness grows deeper.
Just before nightfall as we get back into the car and begin the ride out of the park and we realize that we haven’t eaten since we arrived here this morning. We take one final look back at the juvenile still perched low in the tree and looking so alone. Will he be there in the morning? I don’t know about him but we will be back when the park reopens.
Early the next morning we arrive to find the park gate already open. Even before we make the turn into the park we can see the distinctive silhouette on the same limb of that tree. We make a quick loop around the park and see no other eagles. When we arrive at the tree we find the early riser awake but fluffed up as protection from the damp air and looking more like a small-eyed owl than an eagle.
Anticipation still hangs heavy in the dewy air. He will likely get hungry soon and Jim or Cindy may pass by anytime. This promises to be another exciting day. As we sit and watch it seems like the local wildlife is anticipating something too. A pair of Pileated Woodpeckers land in the tree a few branches above the eagle as if to provide an appropriate drumroll for the event.
About an hour later the local Red-Tailed Hawk makes another appearance, this time flying through the tree and passing above the eagle as if to say, “Enough already!”
More people stop by to admire the youngster as we encourage them to maintain a respectable distance between them and the eagle. Since the moment that he landed in this tree he has been acutely aware of everything passing overhead. Every passing gull gets his undivided attention. Even airliners high in the sky are carefully inspected as they pass by. This morning we find that one of the large, metal birds known as a C17 from the local Air Force base is rumbling overhead and the juvie becomes agitated by each pass. When there is nothing to watch he becomes bored and starts pulling on the nearest twig just to pass the time.
By late morning a different crowd is gathering. They are all short, wear black and white helmets and quite noisy in their own right. And they have goosebumps, Canada Goosebumps.
The anticipation is building and the eagle is getting more fidgety in the tree.
Mike the Rescuer returns. (Sounds like a superhero and he kind of is.) A MetroParks ranger pulls up and gets out of his cruiser. (Ususally not a good thing.) He too has come to admire the large bird making us aware again of what a rare blessing this is. He kindly offers to provide barricades to close the road near the tree if we would like but we know this little guy is getting antsy and hungry and will not likely be here long. Occasionally he looks as if he is about to take off but then settles down again apparently changing his mind (making me think that maybe this bird is a female after all).
In the early afternoon the activity escalates. The restlessness increases. Periods of rest are shortening and the youngster is flexing and stretching more often. First the left wing and leg and then the right. Long, intentional stretches. But he is always, always searching the skies.
Just after 1 o’clock the pacing and shuffling becomes stronger. When he seems to offer us a fist bump it seems that he has made up his mind.
Then for a moment we could swear he is giving us the OK sign with his right foot!
He could have just been scratching his head but it sure looked like an OK sign to me. And then, using the same foot he begins counting down…from 4!
Four, three, two, one…GO!
At 1:12 PM he releases his perch of 23 hours and takes to the air! We spontaneously cheer again! The Night Before Christmas contains the line, “More rapid than eagles his coursers they flew.” That was Clemet C. Moore’s way of saying “really, really, REALLY fast.” With great strength and determination he heads not to the lake for food but straight into the well field for companionship. I believe that he had seen one of our eagles over Eagle Lake and wanted to join in the fun. By the time we get into my car and drive to the east end of Eastwood Lake the youngster is over half a mile away.
It is over.
Just like that.
We pause for a few minutes to let the moment sink in. Will we see him again? Will Jim and Cindy and their juvie accept him? Will he be better able to feed himself now? We are grateful that his slightly off-plumb beak will make him easier to recognize.
As we leave the lake we notice Jim flying low over Eagle Lake. He lands in the top of a tall tree as if to gain a better view of his domain which means that he and the juvenile have met. But with what result? As we drive away we are full of new questions. Hopefully time will tell how the story continues and we will learn more about what happens when feathers, flight and freedom unite.