To date, we have admitted more than 60 eagles. Their difficulties have included fractures and wounds, head trauma, lead poisoning, feather damage, and emaciation. In many cases, human activity was directly or indirectly responsible: these birds have been hit by cars, caught in leg-hold traps set for mammals, ingested spent lead shot, become trapped or entangled in various human artifacts, etc.
Bald eagles were nearly extirpated from the Northeast due to widespread use of contaminants such as DDT. When DDT was banned in 1972, only 29 nesting pairs remained in Maine. The species was listed as federally endangered in 1978; thanks to conservation efforts, it recovered, was reclassified as threatened in 1995, and finally de-listed in 2007. The redemption of bald eagles in Maine has been the result of a cluster of conservation efforts, including protection of nesting habitat, winter feeding, and rehabilitation. We are proud to have played even a very small role in that process, and honored to work closely with two outstanding eagle biologists: Charlie Todd (Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife) and Mark McColIough (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), shown here banding a juvenile just prior to release after recovery from a wing fracture in 2003. In 2007, there were more than 400 nesting pairs in Maine – roughly three-quarters of all the birds throughout the Northeast.
On 9/7/2006, Avian Haven received an urgent cell-phone call from an abandoned area near Hampden, where two young men named Brent Hall and Michael Hallahan were looking at a large bird inside a vertical section of concrete culvert. Brent had seen the bird there a few days earlier, but had not realized it was in trouble; he thought it had gone in there to eat or cache prey.
But now, blood lining the inside of the culvert left no doubt that the bird could not escape. Michael and Brent had no way of rescuing the bird, but agreed to stay until Avian Haven could send someone up. Terry Heitz gathered rescue gear and drove to the site; he got the bird from the culvert with a large net.
Brent and Michael were astonished when Terry told them the bird was a juvenile eagle. Terry could see that there had been some feather damage.
When the bird arrived at Avian Haven, he was thin and weak, but that was the least of his problems. Attempts to beat his way out of the culvert had abraded parts of his wings down to the bone and broken many of his still-immature primary flight feathers.
The bird was banded; soon after Diane e-mailed Charlie the band numbers, he replied that the young eagle's recovery site was very close to its nest, located less than a half mile upriver from the Hampden marina at Turtle Head. It was the "runt" in a nest with two eaglets and was just shy of four weeks old when banded by Chris DeSorbo (BioDiversity Research Institute) on May 28, 2006.
Although the bird stabilized and gained weight rapidly at Avian Haven, several of his damaged flight feathers fell out a few days after the rescue. Between the end of September and the end of December, replacement feathers grew in partially, but dropped before maturing, presumably due to damage to the feather follicles.
Marc brought in the third set of dropped feathers on Christmas Day, and as of mid-January, after Dr. Erica Miller (Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research) told Marc and Diane about the outcome of a similar case she'd once had, they were not optimistic about our bird's chances for release.
But on 1/22, there was cause for cautious optimism; an examination of the bird that day revealed primaries that had grown in farther than ever before. Just a few days later, the bird flew across the flight cage at about Marc's shoulder height. As weeks passed, most of the new primaries stayed in, though one dropped on 2/1, and the same one again on 3/2. Despite the chronically-missing one and several others with tips that had been abraded in the culvert, the bird's flight skills continued to improve. By mid-April, Marc and Diane believed the bird could be released, and talked to Charlie about possible times and places. Charlie's recommendation was based on consideration of several factors: good habitat for an eagle, territory not already defended by a breeding pair, and abundant food supply. His choice was an area along the St. George River, near Warren. Don Riemer was recruited to monitor the site for the alewife run, which traditionally began early in May. On 4/26 the bird was moved into the flyway of our large raptor compound, where he readily made it to the highest perches.
The one "bad" primary was still a concern. Though the shaft was holding, the feather had broken off near the base. So a decision was made to imp that feather (repair it by splinting a healthy donor feather to the shaft of the defective feather). The bird flew well and would be molting soon, so everyone agreed with Charlie's recommendation to leave the tipped primaries alone. The repair work to the broken feather was done on 5/7. Marc is holding the bird, Diane is holding the wing, and Terry is imping the feather.
That same day, Don reported alewives moving upstream in small numbers and 2-3 younger eagles "cruising" the area.
A few days later, the alewives were flush. On 5/12, Brent, Marc and Terry drove the bird to Warren, where they met Don and went on to Clement's Point for release.
The bare arm in addition to Terry's gloved arms belongs to Brent, who is behind Terry.
After the loft-up, the bird flew about 75 feet into a snag. The onlookers wandered to another part of the river for a look at the fish; a few minutes later, when they looked back toward where the bird had been, they saw an immature eagle that circled, then flew in the direction of Warren. Don watched the bird through binoculars, and felt confident it was the one just released. A couple hours later, after others had left, Don saw three eagles (two adults and one "rather ratty-looking" immature) high above the river through his spotting scope. The eagles were doing some rolling maneuvers and occasionally showing talons, but the whole process looked relatively civilized. The immature bird in question appeared to be flying well.
Around noon on December 5, 2006, Robert Scott of Leeds noticed bald eagles feeding on a deer carcass on a nearby property. As he took a closer look, one bird appeared to be "stuck," and it was soon apparent that this eagle had been caught in a foothold trap, one of several that had been set for coyote and fox around the carcass.
Soon after Mr. Scott called Maine's Department on Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Warden Dave Chabot was on the scene to free the bird. The trap had been set legally, but according to newspaper accounts, the trapper was so upset at having inadvertently snagged our national bird that he pulled all his traps from the area. While en route to the scene, Dave had called wildlife rehabilitator Sherri Gee of Minot and asked her to meet him at the scene with a carrier.
After freeing the bird from the trap, Dave (whose hands were then full with a bird weighing roughly 10 pounds!) recruited Bob Peters, a U.P.S. driver who happened along, to call her again, to say that he had the bird. While Sherri was on her way, she called us to let us know that a trap-caught eagle would be headed toward us shortly.
The effort it took to hold this heavy bird is evident on Dave's face in this photo, but as more onlookers (not to mention Sherri!) appeared, he managed the grin shown on the Sun Journal's front page on 12/6.
The eagle had been caught by only the rear toe, or "hallux." But Dave knew that compromised circulation was a risk, and that even a seemingly minor injury of this sort could have severe consequences within a few days. Releasing a bird to the wild directly from a trap is never advisable.
As soon as Sherri arrived, she and Dave bundled the bird into her waiting carrier. Just a few minutes later, she called us to say "I'm on the road headed north – where do you want to meet?" She and Marc agreed on one of their usual spots in Augusta – the Sears parking lot. Marc loaded an eagle-size carrier in our car, and headed south.
When the bird arrived here, the injury did indeed seem minor. We started treatment to promote circulation and crossed our fingers. In a couple of days, the bird was restless in our large indoor hospital cage, and the toe looked fine. Coincidentally, we had just finished the main section of a new habitat for eagles recovering from injuries. Around noon on Dec. 7, the Leeds eagle became its first occupant.
By late that afternoon, the eagle's posture indicated readiness to depart! But Charlie Todd, Maine's Eagle Biologist, wanted to make sure the bird was banded first. The red color band for one leg was supplied by Bill Hanson (Wildlife Biologist with Lewiston-based Florida Power & Light Energy), who took the photo to the left when he delivered the band. Charlie planned to bring us the numbered band that same afternoon. Preparing to depart Bangor, he put his banding kit in a Maine Dept. of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife truck, then went back inside to get his laptop. But when he returned to the parking lot, someone else had taken the vehicle (and his banding kit!).
Weather the next day featured a slippery rain and snow mix; for various reasons, it seemed prudent to wait one more day for the weather to clear. Charlie arrived with the band the next morning (Dec. 9). After one last look at the injured hallux while the bands were applied, we were confident that the toe was and would stay healthy. We had called Warden Chabot to coordinate a transportation relay to the release site, but unfortunately, due to illness, he was unable to leave home. So, on the spur of the moment, Charlie arranged to meet Sherri at the field in Leeds where the bird had been trapped. This stunning photo of Sherri releasing the bird (that's Charlie in the background) made not only the Sun Journal but newspapers all over the eastern seaboard!
The story doesn't quite end there, however. From the beginning, Charlie had believed this eagle to be the male of the pair nesting at Androscoggin Lake. So while en route to Leeds with the bird, he had called Anne Huntington (observer of the nest) and Molly Saunders (property owner at the nest site), inviting them to join Sherri and himself for the release. From Sherri's arms, the bird circled the vicinity, and was then observed to fly strongly toward the nest site until it was lost from view about a mile away from that area. Anne suggested that everyone drive back to her place to see if a bird might be in the "favorite snag" of that pair. Sure enough, an eagle, presumably the one just released, was in that snag when they arrived. The clincher was Anne's report to Charlie the next morning (the 10th) that two eagles were seen together on the snag near the nest site for the first time since the trapping incident – leaving little doubt that the bird trapped in Leeds was indeed the Androscoggin Lake resident.
Several days later, Charlie told us more about why the Androscoggin Lake nest is so special: In 1970, it was the last remaining eagle nest in the Androscoggin River Valley. The eagle population was in a severe decline at that time, with few if any remaining in the western half of Maine. For 19 years, the only eagles in the Androscoggin valley region were visiting transients or wintering birds – not resident breeders. But as the population recovered and began to spread westward, Androscoggin Lake attracted the first pair back to the watershed in 1990. Eagles have returned to that nest every year since, with 18 youngsters fledging over that time span. The two eaglets shown above, almost certainly offspring of the bird whose story is told here, were banded by Bill Hanson this past spring. In 2006, at least 18 other pairs of eagles nested in the Androscoggin basin. A final bonus from the incident was that blood we drew from the trapped bird at the request of ME DIF&W will help investigations of the health of birds eating fish from Androscoggin Lake.
The happy ending to this story was made possible by a well-coordinated group effort, perhaps the key part of which was the quick response of Warden Dave Chabot, who broke his prior speed record in getting to the scene. Thanks and kudos go to many others as well: Robert Scott for reporting the bird; U.P.S. driver Bob Peters for phone help; Sherri Gee for the transport toward Avian Haven and her breath-taking release toss-up; Bill Hanson for providing the color band and photos as noted; Charlie Todd for the numbered band, transportation to the release site, countless phone calls and e-mails as the situation unfolded, and a wealth of historical and contextual information; Terry Heitz for last-minute finishing touches to make the new eagle habitat ready for occupancy on short notice; and Anne Huntington for the final report of the bird's reunion with his mate. Last but by no means least, we thank Russ Dillingham for making his awesome Lewiston Sun Journal photos available to us.