I had a lot of fencing work scheduled last Thursday but it wasn’t to be. Well, actually, some of it was, but only little bits and pieces.
As I drove along the fenceline to check cows that morning, I spied an enormous bird perched atop a fence post. I pulled out my camera and slowed to a stop. To my delight and surprise the bird stayed put and I was able to quickly snap a few pictures.
I didn’t know for sure but I thought it was a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). I marveled at the fact that it was staying put, for I was within about 100 yards. In my experience raptors never let me get so close, and as soon as they see the pickup stop they take flight, which makes it quite hard to get good pictures.
I drove around in a wide circle to get a different sun angle, and I’ll be darned if the big bird didn’t stay put. I got a few more pictures before it launched into flight. That put a big smile on my face to start the day.
But the smile quickly vanished. The bird wasn’t flying well at all, and it came to rest alongside the fence after only a few score yards of flight. Its wings seemed to be working okay, but something wasn’t right.
I got out of the pickup and approached on foot. The bird was hidden in tall weeds on the other side of the wire, and as I approached I thought that it might have a rabbit or some other prey stashed there.
But as I approached it once again took awkwardly to the air, and once again came down after a very short flight. This time it goofed the landing and sprawled in a very undignified heap. It eventually struggled upright, but something was clearly wrong.
Now I was on the horns of a dilemma. I had a lot of work to do. I’m still making up for all the work that got put on hold while I was dealing with a bone infection and surgery. Seven months of chores simply don’t do themselves, and new chores continually add to the list.
So what to do? On the one hand, I could ignore the bird and get to work. It was a good option. Birds are part of nature and nature does what nature does. I had no training or knowledge about raptors, certainly not the kind that would allow me to help the bird in any way. It might probably be best to leave it be and let nature take its course. First of all do no harm.
But I knew myself better than that. I had to at least try.
So on the other hand, I had a smart phone and was connected to the world. I had a good idea who to call to find out who to call to see if anyone was interested in rescuing this bird.
So that’s what I decided to do. The fence wasn’t going anywhere, and my planned slate of makeup chores could be delayed.
First I called Larry Snyder, a local farmer who works with Nebraska Game and Parks and with the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies. He didn’t answer (it was the middle of wheat harvest and he’s a farmer, go figure) so I left a message. I called the Bird Conservancy and left another message. Next, I called Nebraska Game and Parks, who gave me phone numbers for the raptor rescue folks. Wendie Henderson answered right away. She’s from Alliance, but was in Scottsbluff taking her mom to the doctor. She said she’d get something coordinated and call me back.
I bent my back to fencing tasks and waited for the call. Periodically I checked on the eagle, which remained grounded in a stubble field next to the pasture. Unbeknownst to me, a rescue mission was being coordinated by people from both Nebraska and Colorado. Larry had received the message and called Angela Dwyer, the Grassland Habitat Coordinator of the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies. Angela collected Tyler Michels, an integrated biology graduate student at the University of Colorado Denver, and also coordinated with Wendie.
I continued to work on corrals, check on the bird, and await developments. A couple of hours later the rescue team began to arrive. Once everyone was present we put together a capture plan and drove out into the stubble field where the big bird was still grounded.
The eagle was in the corner of a wheat stubble field, within about 100 feet of barbed wire fences separating the field from native prairie. We hoped to capture the bird before it could get through the fence. We encircled the bird and slowly closed in. When we crossed the bird’s fight/flight line, it scrambled away, dodged the humans, and managed to get through the fence unharmed. We reformed on the other side of the fence, closed in once again, and were finally able to get a couple of blankets thrown over it. Let me just say that having a Golden Eagle charge you, wings spread and beak opened wide, screeching and hissing, is quite an experience! The capture wasn’t exactly easy, but it was considerably easier than I’d expected.
What we’d captured was a big, beautiful (probably male, and probably three years old) Golden Eagle. He appeared to have an injured leg, which might have prevented him from hunting. I guessed that he was struggling with malnutrition and dehydration and had finally become too weak to fly away and escape.
We gave the bird water, a capful at a time, from a water bottle. The immediate question was what to do with the beast. The options were to send it to Nebraska’s Raptor Recovery Center near Omaha – a seven-hour drive – or to the Rocky Mountain Raptor Project in Fort Collins. The decision was pretty simple, really. The much shorter journey would be best for the bird. There were a few bureaucratic hurdles to clear, as the bird would have to cross a state line, but instant communication via smart phone quickly paved the way.
As it turned out, Angela and Tyler delivered the eagle to the Cheyenne Pet Clinic Thursday afternoon, and it was collected by Rocky Mountain Raptor Project personnel Friday morning. They assessed its injuries and found that it had a healing fracture in the “wrist area” of the left wing as well as a left eye injury which had rendered it substantially blind on that side. As of Tuesday morning the bird had been moved to the flight enclosure to regain strength.
There are good arguments to be made for letting nature take its course as well as for attempting a rescue. In my mind, the math is pretty simple. As near-apex predators, there are far fewer eagles than prey animals. We’re presently overrun with jackrabbits, and raptors are part of nature’s balance. Raptors are also beautiful and magnificent on the wing and a delight to watch. And at the end of the day, I am also part of nature. Why not give nature an assist when I can?
Here are a couple of phone numbers to call to help coordinate a raptor rescue.
In the Panhandle of Nebraska call the Alliance office of Game and Parks at 308-763-2940. They can put you in contact with the rescue specialists. After hours or on weekends call Wendie Henderson at 308-760-3878. Fontenelle Forest (near Omaha) also has a rescue number, 866-888-7261. Visit that web site at http://www.fontenelleforest.org/found-raptor
In Colorado call the Rocky Mountain Raptor Project at 970-484-7756. The emergency on-call number is 970-222-0322. Visit the RMRP web site at https://www.rmrp.org/ Also check out the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies web site at http://www.bird
In Wyoming call the Teton Raptor Center at 307-203-2551. The rescue hotline is 307-200-6019. Visit the web site athttps://tetonraptorcenter.org/