Memories That Will Last Forever

This past Tuesday, while vacationing in Tennessee, I was blessed with the opportunity to do some very special eagle watching even though I was far away from our Dayton eagles, Jim and Cindy. I was finally able to achieve a long time goal and visit the American Eagle Foundation headquarters in Pigeon Forge.

If you are not familiar with the work of the American Eagle Foundation (AEF) let me share just a little about who they are. They are probably best known for being the caretakers of the world’s most famous American Bald Eagle, Challenger. Perhaps you have seen Challenger fly at a sporting event either on television or in person. Or maybe you have seen Challenger posing with a United States president or some other celebrity. Challenger is a non-releasable, adult, male American Bald Eagle and was named in honor of the crew of the ill-fated space shuttle. Millions of people have witnessed Challenger flying free in the skies over infields and gridirons across the country. Most of those multitudes were experiencing the thrill of seeing a free-flying eagle for the very first time. Witnessing Challenger powering through the sky during the closing measures of the Star-Spangled Banner is a testimony to the wisdom and foresight of our founding fathers and the Second Continental Congress’ decision to designate the Bald Eagle as our national symbol back in 1782.

But not only is AEF the caretaker of more non-releasable Bald Eagles than any other facility in the world, their mission extends far beyond just caring for adult eagles. They care for eagles in all stages of life, from embryos on. At its heart, AEF is a rescue/rehabilitation and educational organization. For nearly 30 years they have proven themselves to be the American Bald Eagle’s greatest advocate and best friend, working tirelessly to promote their well-being, the protection of their habitat and the sanctity of their breeding territories. These objectives reflect the objectives of our Eastwood Eagle Watchers group, albeit on a much, much larger scale.

With this knowledge in mind, I drove through their gate in great anticipation of what lay ahead. But even years of admiration for this group did little to properly prepare me for what I was about to see. I had been advised that my prearranged visit had fallen during a very inopportune time. This was a nest building day. The American Eagle Foundation has very close ties to the Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge. As a part of their educational outreach they maintain a large, outdoor nesting eagle exhibit within the park as well as conducting regularly scheduled shows featuring various birds of prey. My visit happened to coincide with the brief window of opportunity presented by the short closing of Dollywood to prepare the park for the winter/Christmas season. During this intermission the AEF staff and volunteers must enter the eagle exhibit and capture its resident eagles. While the eagles are removed and undergoing various health examinations the enclosure must receive some much needed maintenance and their massive nest must be repaired and cleaned as well.

As I exited my car I noticed several vans parked near the door of the AEF office. I opened that door, stepped inside and suddenly found myself in the middle of a swarm of activity. It looked like organized chaos and I felt very out of place and somewhat in the way. A small army of people was moving in all directions so I retreated to the safety of a nearby wall. Gradually the army began to funnel out the door to the waiting vans, many of them pausing to say goodbye to the office parrots as they passed. It was quite frankly, so reminiscent of a mass movement of Oompa Loompas that I half expected to be greeted by Willy Wonka himself!

But the friendly face I saw approaching me belonged not to Willy, but Bethany. I had communicated with Bethany by e-mail in setting up my visit and it was nice to finally be able to put a face to the font. After a warm greeting she apologized for the mass confusion of the moment and we soon began my tour. We walked down the hallway passing several offices until she led me into a room where abandoned or neglected eggs are incubated and hatched. There she showed me an incubator that is designed to not only maintain the eggs at a proper temperature, but to carefully turn the fragile eggs at regular intervals to assure proper development of the precious life within. She then introduced me to the adult eagle puppet that they use to feed the hatchlings so the eaglets do not imprint with humans. She shared briefly about the process of preparing the adult eagles for the job of fostering the eaglets. This includes giving the adults artificial eggs to incubate and then replacing the artificial eggs with live eaglets and broken egg shells so the process is as natural as possible for the foster parents. I found it all quite fascinating and informative.

Before long, she guided me to another long building within their compound where she introduced me to another AEF person named Barbara. This building at first glance reminded me of a prison facility. I even heard a number of raucous hoots and calls and one very talented mimic calling out as I entered. There was one long, wide concrete hallway with a number of pale green doors on either side. Each door included a small barred window. A plastic bag containing a number of recently lost feathers hung beneath the window of every door. Now I have been in many animal housing facilities in my life but this one was considerably different. Most noticeably it was extremely clean and was conspicuously lacking the pungent odors that I have come to associate with such a facility. Additionally, it was quite a cheerful place and therefore not very prisonlike at all.

Above each doorway hung a wooden plaque proclaiming the name of that room’s resident. My eyes were quickly drawn to a particular door under a plaque that featured a painting of a Bald Eagle’s head and the carefully scripted name of “Challenger”. I instantly smiled. Behind that door lives the most well-known American Bald Eagle in the world. Here is a picture of that door.

Challenger's Door

Challenger’s Door

And here is a picture of that famous American Bald Eagle.



I will admit that I was moved. For me, this was somewhat hallowed ground. Being a fan of the Bald Eagle since childhood and now foolishly trying to catch their majesty with my camera or attempting to portray their beauty in printed words, I am constantly aware of how inadequate my endeavors are at accomplishing either task. But Challenger has thrilled so many hearts over the years by simply being what he was designed to be. He has inspired and encouraged so many American children, adults and veterans by being a personification of the freedom and liberty we so dearly cherish. He is the American dream…with feathers.

Bethany and Barbara then began to lead me door by door around the room sharing about each resident bird of prey. Again, my admiration grew and I wish now that I have taken intricate notes to remember each bird’s name and a bit of their personal story. And there were so many interesting stories to share. There were quite a number of adult Bald Eagles. One was a female named Widow who apparently had not been very fond of her mates over the years. Another was a bird whose story I was already familiar with as I had followed its progress through online reports. Its nest had fallen from a tree near a local Kroger store a few years back. I was privileged to meet Osceola the Hang-Gliding Eagle. Now more than 30 years old, Osceola’s left wing was amputated while he was still a young bird after a severe injury. Maybe you remember seeing him on television as he became the subject of a documentary showing him enjoying flight while hang gliding in a specially designed sling. And of course there was Challenger and a door or two away his protégé Mr. Lincoln. The 16 year old Mr. Lincoln, like Challenger, is also what I call a Feathered Educational Ambassador (FEA) and is in training to take over for 25 year old Challenger when he retires. (I believe the AEF and its FEAs reflect nicely on each other.)

But there were other birds as well. Within this apartment complex there were juvenile Bald Eagles, two Golden Eagles, a Screech Owl, a Barred Owl, a Barn Owl and Great Horned Owls. There was a Turkey Vulture and a Black Vulture, two American Kestrels, a Red-shouldered Hawk, Harris Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks, a hybrid falcon that was prone to seizures, a Crested Caracara, a Common Raven and a very, very talkative African Pied Crow.

American Kestrel

American Kestrel

Screech Owl

Screech Owl

African Pied Crow

African Pied Crow

Red Shoulder Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

Barn Owl

Barn OwlOsceola Osceola

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

Harris Hawk

Harris Hawk

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

Hybrid falcon

Hybrid falcon

And those are just the ones that I remember. Each bird was for one reason or another non-releasable. Each bird had its own spacious apartment. Each bird was well fed. And each bird was very well cared for. Again I found myself impressed.

After saying goodbye to Barbara, Bethany led me outside to a large fenced-in area where there were a number of low perches so the birds can sit outside and enjoy the sunlight. She explained that the fencing that formed a top on the enclosure was there to prevent wild birds from harassing or injuring the residents.

The next stop on the tour was at a large adjacent building with a second story exterior walkway. On one side of the walkway were large breeding enclosures where their breeding birds could mate and reproduce. On the opposite side of the walkway was a large flight pen to provide exercise and to allow for the continued strengthening of rehabilitating birds. Another building nearby was used for quarantining new arrivals and ailing birds.

Every enclosure and every building was extremely well maintained. It was evident that the staff and volunteers of the American Eagle Foundation take their mission very seriously. As we toured the exterior portions of the facility we noticed a wild, adult Bald Eagle perched high in a tall tree overlooking the compound. Bethany could not say whether or not it was one of the many eagles that have been successfully raised or rehabilitated at the facility and even through the camera lens I could detect no leg band or wing tag on the bird.

Wild eagle

Wild eagle

As I left their driveway after my tour I thought of how much I had learned during the 1 ½ hour visit and I remember musing about how remarkable the American Eagle Foundation operation must be if even wild Bald Eagles are standing in line for admission.

The American Eagle Foundation website is If you are unfamiliar with their work, please visit their website for more information on all that they do.

I personally want to thank their founder and president, Mr. Al Cecere, Bethany, Barbara, and all of the AEF staff and volunteers for all of their efforts to protect and promote the American Bald Eagle and for giving me and so many other Americans memories that will last forever.



Published in: on November 7, 2014 at 2:31 am  Comments (18)  

18 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I am so happy for you Jim, the thrill of a life time. To see the magnificent Challenger & Osceola would make me fall over and faint I believe. Every time I see Challenger fly (in videos) and watch Osceola’s famous video I cry like a baby. Thank you so much fir sharing your wonderful experience with us its almost like we are right there with you.

  2. This post warmed my heart and made my spirit soar. The American Eagle Foundation is near and dear to me, as are all the dedicated staff who care for the resident eagles and other birds of prey there. Thank you for such a wonderful tribute.

  3. I am glad you enjoyed it Carolyn. They are very dedicated to their cause. My gratitude extends to all of those who guard and protect aeries across this country of ours and to those who share their local eagles’ stories. Thank you.

  4. Thank you Jannice. I was amazed at how many of the eagles that I have known of over the years are connected to AEF. Osceola is showing his age but is well-loved. It was interesting to hear about each birds personality and temperament as well. The AEF task is daunting but they are dedicated folks. I wrote the post knowing that many of the followers of the blog are elderly, suffering from health issues or in other ways unable to travel and I especially wanted those dear people to experience a bit of the thrill that I experienced during my visit. I am glad that you felt you were there with me for in a real way you all were.

  5. Your memories make me smile, remembering my visits.
    The AEF facility is a remarkable place and every person associated with it is amazing. It is obvious that every bird is special there.
    Thank you for sharing your photos and your visit!

  6. This was such a beautifully narrated representation of your visit to AEF.. Thank you for sharing your insight which surely adds to the education environment the AEF is continually doing.. Your visit to the wonderful facility will be with your the rest of your life, truly an education in itself that will remain in your memory bank.. I’m glad you enjoyed the visit and thank you for writing such a great article and beautiful pictures… ❤

  7. Jim I want to thank you for this writing. I also was very blessed to visit the AEF and meet Bethany and all the staff. I loved my visit and all the birds of prey. I so enjoyed Challenger and Mr. Lincoln. All the photos you have bring back the memories that I will always have in my heart. I love the American Bald Eagle and watch the cams and pray for all the eaglets that hatch. I was so blessed to see Challenger and Mr. Lincoln fly. I went out back and I saw Osceola and my heart breaks for him but he is at the best place he can be.

    Thanks again for your memories.

  8. Sounds wonderful…so glad the AEF is there

  9. Now that’s a place I have to visit!! Thank you for sharing your experience!! I saved the link you provided!

  10. Special birds call for special people Debi. I am glad that I brought back good memories.

  11. Thank you for your kind words Shelia. Our Eastwood Eagle Watchers group is all about education, protecting and sharing the adventures of our local eagles too.

  12. I am glad you enjoyed the post Debbie. Watching a majestic eagle fly is a thrill that everyone needs to experience and seeing their devotion and tenderness towards their mate and their eaglets is simply amazing as well. Those attributes accompanied by their grace in hunting and their fierceness in defending their young and territory make them very special birds.

  13. Me too joy, me too!

  14. Great Wendy! They are a special bunch of people. It takes special people to be able to care for so many birds of prey on a daily basis. They manage to maintain a healthy respect for the wildness of each bird yet form the relationship with every one that is so necessary for their proper care. Each bird is weighed daily to make sure there are no unseen health issues. I don’t think that they realize just how special they are. It is just who they are as people.

  15. Loved your beautiful words that described a place that lives in my heart! I have been may times and Al and staff are the most amazing people! So happy you got to visit and share your visit with others. I organize a chatters reunion every summer at Pigeon Forge to celebrate the chatters, the awesome pairs we watch on cams at both Dollywood and the North East Florida nest. We have a ball and Al and staff bend over backwards to see that we have the most amazing time ever! Would love for you to join us this summer usually last week of July, and anyone else that sees this! We welcome everyone. 🙂 Also I look forward to your every e-mail Jim. Always “takes me there”.

  16. Jim
    thanks so much for the nice comments! very well written. it was very nice meeting and talking with you. God Bless
    Bethany AEF staff

  17. Thank you Joleen. It is a very special place indeed and that is because of the very special people that care for its residents. They are obviously attached to their charges but still manage to respect the fact that they are wild creatures, which is healthy for both the birds and the caretakers. I would love to meet you all someday.

  18. I had a great time Bethany! Thank you for squeezing me in during such a hectic week. I trust no one was offended by my reference to Oompa Loompas as it was meant to reflect their busyness and dedication to the task at hand. God has blessed me greatly with my AEF visit and so many things every day!

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