Flight of the Eagle

Not the Swedish film, but the release of female bald eagle #15-1667.

Almost two hundred people gathered at York River State Park for the arrival of the veterinary director from the Wildlife Center in Waynesboro. He was returning a V.I.B. to her home in the Coastal Plain of Virginia. Two months earlier, a park ranger found her lying sodden on the ground and unable to fly. After passing through the care of a licensed “rehabber,” she was passed to the Center for a physical exam, X-rays, blood tests, and rehabilitation.

Her vital signs and tests were negative apart from slight bruising, and no one was the wiser about what had brought the bird down. It took time to recover strength for an independent life again. That time had come.

The vet held on firmly with thick gloves around her neck and legs as he lifted the great bird out of a box in the back of his wagon. We were told to line-up in two rows about 20 yards apart, like guests at Buckingham Palace come to gawk at the Queen passing regally down the middle. The public is forbidden to touch the Monarch; the same for the eagle.

Bald eagles are common again, but never regarded as two-a-penny. You can guarantee to see them in most places along the York and James Rivers, and there are two nests on Jamestown Island where visitors have a grandstand view if they lift their heads for a minute from gazing into the archeological pit. Along with ospreys, eagles have plenty of sport diving for fish close to the shore.

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Vet with eagle-smallThe bird struggled in the vet’s arms, her wild nature still looking untamed. Fortunately. She cracked open her hooked beak and flailed the ebony talons on her long legs, as yellow as egg yolk. I expected to hear an aquiline snarl, but she was all gesture and scowled silently. When white feathers were raised on her head I thought she looked fierce, but a bystander said, perhaps more sympathetically, it was anxiety. Is there always a difference?

We couldn’t see the tiny GPS transmitter strapped to her back because it was hidden by feathers. The bird joins dozens of other avian soarers carrying transmitters that send tracking signals to ornithologists. The data show where, when and how high they fly in this region thick with domestic and military airports and flight paths.

The vet prepared us for the launch. One…two…three, and then he tossed her in the air. Without hesitation, her wings opened and undercarriage dangled as she started flapping magisterially down the flight path prepared between us, gaining height, never looking back until a turn into the forest left us standing on the green.

Eagle take off-small

Next Post: Virginia Nature Journal for August

About Roger Gosden

British-born scientist specializing in human and animal reproduction & embryology. Academic career spanned from Cambridge and Edinburgh to McGill and Cornell's Weill Medical College in Manhattan where he was Professor & Research Director. Married to Lucinda Veeck Gosden, embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America, he retired early to Williamsburg, Virginia, to write and to recover from 'nature deficit disorder'
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