Maine has seen its share of sad eagle news this month. On Jan. 12, the Bangor-based bald eagle known as “Bangor Mom” fell ill from lead poisoning and died at Avian Haven, the bird rehabilitation center in Freedom, Maine. And on that same night, a second lead-poisoned eagle was transported to the facility from Calais. It, too, died.
So when Avian Haven invited me to an eagle release on Saturday, Jan. 21, I was especially eager to attend the uplifting event. The eagle, which had arrived at Avian Haven with lead poisoning from Dixmont in November, had recovered. It was ready to fly free.
Finally, some good news.
What made the event even more meaningful to me was the fact that I’d seen that particular eagle, in “person,” at Avian Haven while visiting the center to write a feature story a couple of weeks prior.
Usually, visitors don’t get the opportunity to see any of the birds that are being cared for at Avian Haven. They try to minimize human interaction with the birds they’re treating, and for good reason. They don’t want birds to become habituated to people. Their goal is always to release birds back into the wild. But they scheduled a few routine check-ups to take place during my visit, and allowed me to be a fly on the wall. (A rare and special occasion during which I tried to be as unobtrusive as possible.)
The Dixmont eagle was one of the birds that needed a check up. They needed to draw its blood to see if lead levels were remaining low.
The eagle wore a leg band, which Avian Haven looked up on the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory Database. From the database, they learned that the eagle was a female — something that is fairly difficult to determine because female and male bald eagles look so much alike. She was banded as an eaglet in a nest near Plymouth Pond in Plymouth, Maine, in 2004. From that information, they could determine she was nearly 13 years old.
She was admitted to Avian Haven on Nov. 6 after being found in the woods in Dixmont, to weak to fly.
“She had a significantly elevated blood lead level, so at some point had presumably ingested lead fragments when scavenging game remains,” said Avian Haven co-founder and co-owner Diane Winn in a recent email interview.
Avian Haven treated her with a round of chelating agent. They then waited for her body to do the rest. With lead-poisoned eagles, there’s no guarantee they’ll ever recover. Often, the eagle is just too sick, and Avian Haven staff are stuck with the grim task of making the eagle as comfortable as possible as it dies.
Fortunately, this wasn’t the case for the Dixmont eagle.
“Her blood lead level bounced around a bit in December, staying higher than we would have wanted it to be for release,” Diane said.
I watched on Jan. 4, as Avian Haven co-found and co-owner Marc Payne carried the Dixmont eagle into the center’s lab for testing, and I was instantly struck by how large the bird was. She looks around the room with wide, pale yellow eyes as she sat cradled in Payne’s arms, her wings folded and pressed against his chest and her big, yellow, taloned feet trapped in his gloved hands.
She was, indeed, a big eagle, Payne told me, and he has handled hundreds, perhaps thousands, of raptors so far in his career as a raptor specialist and wildlife rehabilitator.
Now, female eagles are typically larger than males. When you see a pair of eagles sitting side by side, that’s usually how you can tell which is which. But the Dixmont eagle was especially large. In fact, she was so big that her leg band wasn’t even the correct color for Maine, which is red. (Each state has a different color.) The band was silver because the typical band hadn’t fit around her big leg, Payne told me.
I watched as they stretched out her right wing, which only further demonstrated her impressive size. They then parted the feathers and took a sample of her blood from a vein. And as Payne brought her back to the quiet confines of the center’s eagle flight cage, Avian Haven employee Kim Chavez tested the blood for lead and smiled at the results. The lead was down to an acceptable level.
Avian Haven tested the eagle’s blood again on Jan. 14, and after confirming that lead was still at an acceptable level, they consulted with state raptor biologist Charlie Todd to select a location for her release. They decided on Knox Ridge in Knox, a location that draws dozens of bald eagles to feed on ingredients (including fish) being used to produce vast quantities of compost at a nearby farm. If released there, the Dixmont eagle would have a readily available food source, and she could possible interact with other eagles.
It was my third time attending an eagle release, but for my husband, Derek, who tagged along, it was his first. We stood in a snowy field with a couple of Avian Haven volunteers and watched as Payne and Chavez opened the front door and lifted the top of the animal carrier. But the eagle didn’t burst out of the cage immediately as I had expected. Instead, it banged against the sides of the cage with its great wings, collected itself, then launched into the air, flying low over the field, scraping at the crusty snow with its long, curved talons.
In a middle of the field, it landed. Standing in the snow and dead grass, it turned its great white head and looked back at the Avian Haven crew. It then seemed to assess its surroundings — the frozen fields and cloudy sky. Perched on trees nearby were at least seven bald eagles, all feasting on the compost materials over the hill, accompanied by a flock of seagulls.
She was probably being cautious, Payne told me, taking the lay of the land.
After a few minutes, the Dixmont eagle took flight again. Staying low to the ground, she crossed the field and flew over a fence, then landed once more, this time much closer to her fellow eagles and the food source.
Each bird release is different, Payne said. Wild animals are hard to predict. During an eagle release, all Avian Haven staff can do is make sure that the eagle is calm and facing towards the door of the carrier, and then, open it up. Then it’s up to the bird.
Good luck, Dixmont eagle.
To learn about non-lead ammunition alternatives, visit huntingwithnonlead.org.