By Doug Pifer
On New Year’s Day about a hundred people gathered to watch Blue Ridge Wildlife Center release an adult male bald eagle at Low Water Bridge near Front Royal. I was sick at home with a cold so wasn’t among them.
Members of the Shenandoah Valley Audubon Society counted a total of eleven bald eagles during their annual Christmas bird count December 14, a record number for this area. Eagle abundance is reflected in the high number of eagles that have been rescued and treated this past year by the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center in Millwood. Half a dozen or so bald eagles were treated and released. I managed to attend a bald eagle release last fall at Watermelon Park.
Six weeks before, this adult eagle had been discovered nearby, standing on the road, unable to fly, and staggering around, barely able to walk. Dr. Belinda Burwell, director of the wildlife center, tested the bird and determined that it had lead poisoning. It had ingested lead shot, possibly from eating an animal that had died after being shot by a hunter. The bird was treated and was successfully rehabilitated in the large flight cage at the center.
As Dr. Burwell spoke, Heather Sparks, a professional wildife rehabilitator, brought the eagle out of its carrying crate. Wearing oversize leather gloves that covered her hands and arms, Heather carried the bird gently but firmly so the crowd could see and take pictures.
Seen this close, eagles are enormous. As big as a large turkey, they weigh much less but their wingspan is much greater—up to 7 feet! Held securely in Heather’s gloved hand, the yellow-skinned talons were the size of my own hands. From the white-feathered face, stern yellow eyes gazed calmly while cameras and cell phones popped and clicked.
Heather told the assembled group how she and an intrepid volunteer, also named Heather, responded to the call and picked up the bird. When they arrived in the van, the eagle was nowhere in sight, having wandered off the road and fallen down a bank next to the Shenandoah River. When the women climbed down to where the bird was, it fell into the water and swam out into the river. Heather Sparks entered the river but fortunately the eagle swam toward the shore, downstream to where the other Heather was waiting. They managed then to secure the eagle, but faced the dilemma of getting it back up the riverbank. Holding an eagle requires two hands and two arms, so climbing is impossible.
One woman would hold the eagle while the other would climb higher up the bank. Trading the bird back and forth, the two Heathers managed to get the eagle back to the van and into a carrying crate.
Now, six weeks later, we all stepped aside to see the eagle tossed into the air. Instantly its broad wings carried it to freedom. What a grand sight!