It was a tough winter for eagles. The Alaska Raptor Rehabilitation Center had a full house. The normal number of eagles were injured by electric wires, entangled in fishing gear and suffered from other human encounters. One immature bird fell out of the nest in the national park and the Raptor Center had to build it a nest and kind of nurse it before it could go into the flight barn. But the big difference this year was a shortage of food for the eagles. There was a bad salmon run last fall and other food didn’t seem to be around. The center took in a number of emaciated birds. One was in a dumpster looking for food and, for the first time, a hungry eagle actually checked itself into the Raptor Center. It apparently saw food in the Golden Eagle’s enclosure, tried to get at it and in the process got tangled in the cage netting. It was starving so they took it in.
In the spring, when the herring return, the center releases the eagles they’ve cared for over the winter. They hold the release until there’s enough food for the newly released birds to have a relatively easy time getting used to being wild and free again.
Over the course of the fall and winter these eagles have become local celebrities and celebrities attract the paparazzi.
Gilly was the first eagle released. George Burnstein, who normally photographs doings at the center had the honor. Before release each bird gets a full physical. Nine birds were candidates for release but the final decision is made during the physical. As it happens 7 were released. They get a blood test to make sure they are not carrying infections, there is a check of bones, eyes, talons and a final check to make sure there is enough meat on the bones. Then they get new bands and brought out to the muskeg platform where they find freedom.
They are hooded, it keeps them calm. The people doing the release wear leather welding jackets and leather welding gloves. They hold the bird while a Raptor Center eagle expert directs the process and removes the hood.
In Gilly’s case the bird shook its head, stretched its wings and took off, heading for the crowd and specifically me. The final pics of Gilly completely fill the frame and are out of focus (I was using my water proof lens because of the rain. It has less range than my normal range and I could not zoom out to wide angle). Gilly did a quick turn and I could feel the breeze of his wings in my hair as it turned and headed up Indian River Valley. Wow.
Bob Sam, a respected Native Elder, storyteller and the keeper of the graves released one of the birds. He looked so happy.
One of the immature birds seemed initially to not know what to do, he backed up into his handler before stretching and then spreading his wings. I was able to track him for quite a distance as he circled us and finally settled into a tree to watch the rest of the releases.
Here are a few more pics, a beautiful mature bird taking off after a winter of rehabilitation.