Eagles: A soaring success

June 30, 1994|By This article was written by Sun staff members Clara Germani, Mike Klingaman, Tom Horton and Timothy B. Wheeler.

It was one of those hushed "Wild Kingdom" moments that brought state biologist Peter Jayne to a near standstill.

"Those are eagles," he said in disbelief as he hunched up over his dashboard to get a better look at what the pinkish dawn was revealing recently at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near Cambridge on the Eastern Shore.

Five young eagles launched silently into a graceful game of aerial leapfrog from one tall loblolly pine to another, powerful wings sweeping at the thick summer air.

The quintet cavorts like fearless, feathered Blue Angels because the birds are too young to fear the proximity of vehicles on the refuge road, explained Bill Giese, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist.

Even at Blackwater, home to a large cluster of eagles, the sight of so many at once, frolicking close to humans, was astonishing.

It was a brief but heady glimpse of the bald eagle's comeback from the brink of extinction in the lower 48 states. Federal officials were to make the recovery official today by announcing plans to shift the species from America's endangered list to the threatened category.

Because the Chesapeake Bay shoreline helped nurture the comeback, the wildlife service chose Blackwater as the place to issue the good news about the bird that became our national symbol in 1782.

"Hope," an injured bald eagle treated at the Baltimore Zoo, was to be the star of the show today at Blackwater.

Recovered from a broken wing, the 11-pound adult -- with characteristic white head and tail -- was to be released back to the wild after an intensive four-month convalescence that included "flight training."

Blackwater has eight nesting pairs of eagles, with another 13 pairs within two miles of the refuge and 13 more in outlying Dorchester County. About 150 adult eagles, some from as far away as Maine, spent last winter at or near the refuge.

The five young birds that startled the visiting state wildlife biologist with their antics were hatchlings from late last winter, said Mr. Giese. "They are probably bigger when they leave the nest than any other time in their life," he said. "They still have

their baby fat, and their general muscle tone is not good."

Their wingspan is easily 6 feet, and their body proportion is "huge," Mr. Giese said. But their waistlines will shrink as they exercise and age.

Bald eagles take about four years to mature and to begin nesting. Until then they will wander extensively.

John James Audubon, in the first of his seven-volume classic, "The Birds of America" (1840), had a good deal to say about bald eagles. For example, he observed eagles hunting in pairs, diving alternately on waterfowl to exhaust them before closing in for the kill.

Modern scientists are accumulating surprising evidence that eagles and other raptors -- birds of prey -- engage in group hunting, showing perhaps more intelligence than the big birds once were assumed to have.

Audubon said that a bald eagle descending at high speed causes a noise "not unlike that produced by a violent gust of wind passing amongst the branches of trees."

A biologist at Aberdeen Proving Ground, home to more than 100 roosting eagles at times in the winter, had this to say about the descent of an eagle on a crippled duck: "When he struck, all you could see was feathers, like the duck had just exploded."

Bald eagles appear to mate for life. They like fish and generally nest around water; hence the immense attraction of the Chesapeake Bay, with its estimated 8,000 to 9,000 miles of shoreline.

Big, strong and good-looking, the bird has a host of admirers. Its presence, whether soaring great distances or brooding royally atop a tall tree, energizes a landscape as do few other natural phenomena.

In one way or another, though, many bald eagles are badly wounded, as was the specimen being released at Blackwater today.

Baltimore Zoo officials expect Hope's transition to freedom to be a smooth one. But the eagle, found in a farm field near Chestertown in February, was a cantankerous patient, said Dr. Michael Cranfield, chief veterinarian at the zoo hospital.

The 4-year-old bird screeched and squawked continually around humans, and always retreated in her cage when approached. "She had a definite look of defiance, as if to say, 'I wish I were any place but here,' " said Dr. Cranfield. "This was a strong-willed bird -- which is just what you want."

A farmer's wife spotted Hope struggling in a field in Kent County last winter. After a vigorous foot chase, the eagle was captured ++ by Dr. Albert Townshend, a Chestertown veterinarian who examined Hope and sent her on to the Baltimore Zoo. There, officials bandaged a broken right wing and nursed the eagle back to health.

Dr. Cranfield believes Hope's injuries probably came from a fight with another bird, but she might have been shot.

Several weeks ago, Hope was again transferred, this time to an ornithological rehabilitation center in Newark, Del., where she's been flapping her wings in large flight pens in anticipation of today's takeoff.

How will she react to her new-found freedom? "She may walk a short distance, or fly a short way to get her bearings. She may flap off down the waterway, out of sight," said Pam Osten, curator of birds at the zoo. "Given her temperament, I'm optimistic that she'll take off. And we'll be cheering her on."

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