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Rehabilitated Eagle Released Back to the Wild

By June 28, 2022No Comments
After she kicked open the door and took 3 or 4 hops to get outside the kennel, the female bald eagle takes off in flight. You can see that she’s banded but we don’t have banding information yet. Robin’s grandson in the background videoing the event with his phone. This is a wild shot as she is now free from her kennel and flying without obstruction. D500 with 80-400mm lens at 80mm. f/4.5, 1/1250 second, ISO 1250,; light editing in Lightroom Classic. The zoom lens compresses the image, making Robin’s grandson appear closer than he actually is. © Linda Steider

A rehabilitated eagle takes flight. For a more complete description, see the sequence of release photos, below. © Linda Steider

By Linda Steider

It was an honor, a privilege, and a thrill to witness the release of a female bald eagle back into the wild after she was treated at our local wildlife clinic in the Columbia River Gorge.  My friend Kathy, with knowledge and experience in handling raptors, and the assistance of her friend Robin had rescued an injured eagle and delivered it to Rowena Wildlife Clinic where it was treated and recovered.  About two weeks later, Kathy released the eagle back to the wild, near the rescue site and the bird’s home territory.  My role in the release was to capture the eagle’s essence as she literally kicked open the kennel, and swiftly took off with power, purpose, and determination across an expanse of open field and up into a stand of fir trees, back in her own territory, healed and healthy.

Local eagle population

Washington State has the largest bald eagle population in the lower 48. They are primarily found in the Puget Sound area, according to retired wildlife biologist and Columbia River Gorge resident, David Anderson.  After DDT was banned in 1972, endangered eagle populations began to recover and David found the first nesting pair in the Gorge, near Bonneville Dam, in the early 1990’s. The Columbia River Gorge is currently home to approximately a dozen pairs of bald eagles

Migrating eagles cause the population to swell to well over 100 individuals during winter as they follow their food sources.  They begin arriving here around Thanksgiving. Eagle populations peak mid-December to mid-January and most migrants have left by the end of January.

The eagles face a variety of threats, both natural and man-made, from collisions with vehicles to ingesting lead shot or poison from dead animals, and from habitat loss to climate change. Finding a sick or injured eagle is not common, but it does happen.

The injured bald eagle shortly after it was delivered to Rowena Wildlife Clinic in the Columbia River Gorge. Dr. Jean Cypher examines the raptor while it’s held by volunteer, Elijah Schneider in late afternoon. This is a captive shot after Kathy and Robin rescued the injured eagle. Apple iPhone 6s Plus, 29mm, f/2.2, ISO 80. Photo credit: Kathy Larson, used with permission.

An injured bird is found

A local resident spotted this particular eagle struggling on a snow-covered creek drainage in the Bear Creek area of the Columbia River Gorge and called Kathy.  Because of her previous experience in raptor rescue, she knew what to do and how to go about it.

Once they located the eagle, Kathy and Robin worked as a team and used extreme caution as they approached it. Kathy gently draped a blanket over the raptor. Then, wearing thick leather gloves, she firmly grasped its feet.  She had Robin keep a tight hold on the eagle, now bound in the blanket.  Kathy covered the eagle’s head with an oversized, breathable wool ‘sock’ to keep her quiet and calm.  The ‘sock’ belonged to Kathy’s parents and is used in an emergency when a proper hood isn’t available.

They notified the Rowena Wildlife Clinic that they were on their way with an injured eagle. Fortunately, it was late afternoon and the clinic was still open. They quickly and safely drove the bird to the clinic, which was prepped and ready to receive the injured eagle.

Rowena Wildlife Clinic, a licensed wildlife rehabilitation facility and registered non-profit organization, was founded by Dr. Jean Cypher in 2000. The clinic treats over 500 injured and orphaned native animals each year and as a nonprofit relies on donations to feed, house and treat the animals. The clinic took over the eagle’s care, treated her for a laceration on her right ‘wrist’ and swollen wingtips that prevented her from flying. She was also lethargic, and was tested for lead. Test results showed low lead levels as well as elevated liver enzymes, so they treated her with lead chelation therapy.

In only two weeks, the eagle had healed and was ready for release.  Kathy thought long and hard about including anyone in the release because she didn’t want a crowd that might frighten the eagle.  I was asked to photo-document the release because of my volunteer work with raptors and the ethical photography practices that I’ve learned from being around wildlife biologists and ethical birders. (See NANPA’s Principles of Ethical Field Practices.)

The treated and healed bald eagle, just before it was kenneled and readied for transport to the release site. Dr. Cypher holds the eagle while Robin fed it prior to departure back to Carson, Washington. This is a captive shot, as the eagle is still in the capable hands of Rowena Wildlife Clinic. Apple iPhone image. Photo credit; Robin Burns-Aman, used with permission.

Preparing for the release

An hour before our guest of honor was expected to arrive, I met Kathy at the release site, which was only about a quarter mile from where the raptor had been found. Both Robin and Kathy had their young grandchildren present for the wonderful educational opportunity afforded.

It was 2.2.22, an auspicious day for a raptor release, and the excitement in the air was tangible and electric.  Dark clouds overhead threatened rain, so we worked as efficiently as possible scouting an exact release location.  I felt honored, humbled and grateful for this experience and wanted to be sure I gave the eagle her due respect.

We discussed the best place to observe and photograph, yet not interfere with or impede, the eagle’s likely flight path over an open, grassy field.  When the pickup truck arrived at high noon carrying our precious cargo in a covered kennel, we directed the driver, Robin’s husband Ken to back into our chosen spot.

I typically don’t use a tripod to photograph wildlife, but didn’t want to take any chances during this extraordinary event, so I set up 2 cameras on tripods with shutter release cables.  I placed myself well off to the side and slightly ahead of the kennel, anticipating the eagle would fly toward a stand of fir trees on the far side of the field from where we stood.  I aimed both cameras at the kennel and focused, knowing this would happen lightning fast.  My Nikon D850 had a 70-200mm lens attached and my D500 had an 80-400mm lens attached.  I also had my spare D500 with a 500mm lens waiting on a blanket ready to pick up once the eagle had flown out of range for my other lenses.

Kathy’s Canon 6D Mark ll was also at the ready with an EF 70-200 lens and Robin had her Nikon D7100 with an 18-140mm lens attached.  All three of us also used our phones for video.  With all this gear ready to go, we knew we were as prepared as possible and hoped to capture the entire sequence of the release.

We felt we had all potential angles covered and took a collective deep breath while the kennel was gingerly removed from the pickup truck and carefully placed on the ground with the door facing a stand of fir trees about 200 yards away.  We waited a few minutes to be sure the eagle was calm and everyone had taken their places.  Our hearts were pounding. The children waited in quiet awe as the latches were carefully and quietly unclasped.  The blanket covering the kennel was slowly pulled back, then removed, making sure nothing would interfere with the release.

In photo one, we see Robin’s husband Ken and grandson, Kathy and Robin at the back of the truck discussing a strategy for the release of a bald eagle on private property in Carson, Washington, after picking her up from Rowena Wildlife Clinic. This is a controlled event as the eagle is being held in a kennel in the back of the pickup, awaiting release. D850 with 70-200mm lens at 70mm, f/3.2, 1/1000 second, ISO 250.

In the second photo, as Kathy reaches in to help, Ken unclasps the lock on the eagle’s kennel, which has been placed on the ground. Robin stands in the background, ready to start photographing. This is a controlled event as the eagle is being held in a kennel on the ground in a grassy field, awaiting release. D850 with 70-200mm lens at 70mm f/3.2, 1/2000, ISO 250 second.

As Robin makes sure the blanket doesn’t catch on the latch in the third photo, Ken slowly and gently slides the blanket off the eagle’s kennel just before she is released back into the wild. Kathy watches and is about to move behind the kennel. D500 with 80-400mm lens at 80mm, f/4.5, 1/1250 second, ISO 1250.

Ken walks away with the blanket in photo four, while Kathy stands behind the kennel watching the eagle kick open the door and take a few steps toward freedom. All participants are at appropriate distances from the eagle. Kathy has experience releasing raptors back into the wild, after being treated and/or rehabilitated from an accredited wildlife rescue clinic. D500 with 80-400mm lens at 80mm, f/4.5, 1/1250 second, ISO 1250.

All images © Linda Steider

Away in an instant

We could hear the eagle stomping inside the kennel, anxious to be let out, as if she knew she was home.  Before anyone could reach down to open the gate, the eagle kicked the door open, took two or three hops out, then powerfully took off in flight.  It took her less than two seconds, flying low and fast, to reach the stand of fir trees across the field. She landed on a large branch there, mostly out of our view.

It all happened shockingly fast and I was glad we had spent the time to carefully prepare the cameras to record this thrilling event.

Afterwards Kathy and I circled the field slowly, attempting to locate her on the other side of the fir trees, to be sure she was ok. But she wanted no further contact with us and soared to the next stand of conifers.  She was free and back in the wild.  In less than three seconds!

Kathy’s grandchildren had been excused from their school for this once in a lifetime event. Shortly afterwards, they each presented a ‘show and tell’ to their classmates.  Robin’s grandson had the bonus of picking up the rehabilitated eagle at Rowena Wildlife Clinic, then counting eagles he saw on the drive back to our release spot, while his grandmother gave him an eagle history lesson.

Photo 1: After she kicked open the door and took 3 or 4 hops to get outside the kennel, the female bald eagle takes off in flight. You can see that she’s banded but we don’t have banding information yet. Robin’s grandson in the background videoing the event with his phone. This is a wild shot as she is now free from her kennel and flying without obstruction. The zoom lens compresses the image, making Robin’s grandson appear closer than he actually is. D500 with 80-400mm lens at 80mm. f/4.5, 1/1250 second, ISO 1250. Photo 2: The newly released bald eagle flies fast and low across a grassy field near the Bear Creek area, where she was found struggling just a couple of weeks before. This is a wild shot as she is free from her kennel and heading toward a stand of firs. D500 with 80-400mm lens at 80mm, f/4.5, 1/1250 second, ISO 1250. Photo 3: Back in the wild, the eagle is about to land on a branch in a stand of fir trees near where she was rescued. This is also a wild shot. D500 with 500 5.6E PF ED VR lens at 500mm. F5.6, 1/1250 second, ISO 1250. Photo 8: The eagle rests on a fir branch just a few seconds after she was released back into the wild in the Columbia River Gorge. Branches and fir needles obstruct a clear view of her as she looks out toward her next perch. This is a wild shot as she is recently released from her kennel and now resting on a fir branch. D500 with 500 5.6E PF ED VR lens at 500mm, f/5.6, 1/1250 second, ISO 320, 500mm. All images © Linda Steider

After she kicked open the door and took 3 or 4 hops to get outside the kennel in photo one, the female bald eagle takes off in flight. You can see that she’s banded but we don’t have banding information yet. Robin’s grandson in the background videoing the event with his phone. This is a wild shot as she is now free from her kennel and flying without obstruction. The zoom lens compresses the image, making Robin’s grandson appear closer than he actually is. D500 with 80-400mm lens at 80mm. f/4.5, 1/1250 second, ISO 1250.

In photo two, the newly released bald eagle flies fast and low across a grassy field near the Bear Creek area, where she was found struggling just a couple of weeks before. This is a wild shot as she is free from her kennel and heading toward a stand of firs. D500 with 80-400mm lens at 80mm, f/4.5, 1/1250 second, ISO 1250.

Back in the wild in photo three, the eagle is about to land on a branch in a stand of fir trees near where she was rescued. This is also a wild shot. D500 with 500 5.6E PF ED VR lens at 500mm. F5.6, 1/1250 second, ISO 1250.

In photo four, the eagle rests on a fir branch just a few seconds after she was released back into the wild in the Columbia River Gorge. Branches and fir needles obstruct a clear view of her as she looks out toward her next perch. This is a wild shot as she is recently released from her kennel and now resting on a fir branch. D500 with 500 5.6E PF ED VR lens at 500mm, f/5.6, 1/1250 second, ISO 320, 500mm.

All images © Linda Steider

Editor’s note: The captions Linda Steider wrote for this article are particularly good examples of what NANPA advocates in our Truth in Captioning Statement. They contain the who, what, when, where and how of the image and they educate viewers about the context and intent of the photo.

Soaring into the future

Neighbors had reported seeing her mate, soaring overhead alone, during her absence After her return, the duo was spotted by many locals. She is banded, but when we checked, her banding data had not yet been processed with the USGS North American Bird Banding Program (BBL Bird Banding Lab) website, so no historical information about her is yet known.

What you can do

If you come across wildlife in distress, call your local wildlife rehabilitation center or state department of fish and wildlife.  You can also call your local law enforcement, who will usually know who to contact.

If you fish or hunt, you can eliminate lead from your tackle box and ammunition.

If you enjoy photographing wildlife, maybe your local wildlife rehabilitation center could use some photos when they release healed animals back into the wild.

And something everyone can do is drive at a slower pace, enjoy the scenery and be ready in case wildlife suddenly jumps in front of your vehicle on the road.

Photo credit: Talia Kreps Photography

Linda Steider is a wildlife/nature photographer in the Columbia River Gorge on the Oregon/Washington border; and can be found on a trail or dirt road 3 to 4 days a week. She places herself with her favorite subjects by volunteering for various agencies who have used her photos to promote conservation. East Cascades Audubon, Global Owl Project, Cascades Pika Watch, WDFW and Conboy Lake NWR. Co-owner of a retail gallery, ‘Made in the Gorge’ in Hood River Oregon, Linda sells her expressive bird and wildlife prints while educating her customers on the value of wildlife. To view more of her work, visit www.steiderstudios.com, or follow her on Facebook (@SteiderStudios) and/or Instagram (@Steider Studios ).