Soaring spirits as birds released

Outcome: Four young bald eagles, recently trapped in mire and close to death, are sent back to the wild.

May 28, 2002|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Usually their brawn and bravery are reserved for human beings, helpless and trapped along a rocky cliffside, or struggling to stay alive in a rush of water.

For members of the U.S. Park Police, those rescues are intense, to be sure. But the team's first wildlife rescue might prove to be one of the most memorable.

Yesterday, park police members - with staff from the state Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - watched as four bald eagles they had saved from a quicksandlike silt pond three weeks ago coasted confidently through the skies.

FOR THE RECORD - A caption accompanying a photograph of a bald eagle being released on page 1B of some editions yesterday misspelled the name of Kia Fox. The Sun regrets the error.

"It's just so gratifying to have been a part of it," said Sgt. John Marsh, the rescue technician from the park police who had balanced on the foot-bar of a MedEvac helicopter and pulled some of the eagles from the gluelike mud that was threatening their lives. "It's so amazing that they can fly like that. It's so spectacular."

One by one yesterday morning, the eagles were released back to the wild by Gov. Parris N. Glendening and his wife, Jennifer E. Crawford.

As their broad wings beat and they sailed effortlessly up and beyond a patch of trees at Sandy Point State Park in Annapolis, children and onlookers gasped.

"I can't believe those are babies," said Genevieve Kurtz, 5, of Takoma Park, as the birds - with 7-foot wingspans - flew past her head.

The eagles' grace was remarkable, considering their circumstances May 7: The four were discovered near the Potomac River in Charles County - trapped in a pit of silt up to their brown heads, the sun beating down on them.

"They were basically sitting there waiting for death," said Bryan King, the southern region manager of the Department of Natural Resources, who also hoisted some of the frightened birds out of the pit.

No one knows exactly how the birds - not quite mature yet - managed to trap themselves in the dangerous muck, or how long they'd been there. Of seven total, three were dead when the helicopter arrived. The desperate look in the beady blue eyes of the other four was enough to make the men treat the rescue as if it involved a child in danger.

"They had a lot of life left in them," Marsh said. "We really wanted to save them."

That's why Glendening thought it appropriate to laud the rescuers as true heroes, of the same caliber as those recognized on occasions such as Memorial Day.

"It really is moving," Glendening said after the release. "You can't look at that eagle and not feel anything about what it represents for this country."

`Threatened'

Bald eagles are designated as "threatened" by the federal government, a step above the "endangered species" status. Efforts by wildlife advocates to track and protect the birds - the national symbol - have increased the numbers of healthy eagles in this country, and particularly in the Delaware, Maryland and Virginia area.

Glenn Therres, assistant director of wildlife and heritage services for DNR and the state's pre-eminent specialist on bald eagles, said the three states have more than 600 pairs of nesting eagles, with more than 300 in Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay area alone.

Despite their having flourished recently, Therres said the rescue, rehabilitation and release of those four eagles is significant.

"Four is a good amount to pull out of one spot," Therres said. "Maybe one out of four may not make it through the year, but they definitely would not have reached adulthood if they hadn't been pulled out of that pit."

Tracking to ensue

After the rescue effort, the birds were taken to the Baltimore Zoo, where they were cleaned, fed and nursed back to health. At Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research Inc. in Newark, Del., the eagles were exercised in a roomy flight cage until they were strong enough to go back out on their own.

Tiny transmitters, each weighing about 60 grams, were fastened to their backs and will help biologists and community members follow the birds for the next 18 months to three years. Data from the transmitters will be posted weekly on the Department of Natural Resources Web site (www.dnr.state.md.us).

Glendening said he particularly plans to follow the first bird he released, whose last four identification digits are 0116.

"I want to see how that one's doing," he said.

Rescuers, biologists and others who watched yesterday said they hope the eagles reach maturity - 4 1/2 to 5 years old - so they can see them after they've developed the white crowns and snow-tipped tails that make them familiar, majestic symbols.

"Hopefully, these guys and gals will grow up and mate and breed for a long time to come," Therres said. "And help out with the population."

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