A Journey Back to the Wild

After graduating from University College Dublin in Ireland with a Zoology degree, the next step for me was searching for work experience in as many aspects of wildlife biology as possible. My post-college journey has begun with an externship at the Wildlife Center of Virginia. I found it to be a rewarding experience, as well as a challenging uphill climb (no, literally, the place is built on a slope!).

During my time at the Wildlife Center, it has been my pleasure to work with truly amazing birds, including Bald Eagles. Even more amazing was being able to watch them get stronger at flying. During my three-month externship, a few of the raptors I exercised reached the end of their flight conditioning and were finally deemed healthy enough to be released back into the wild. Two Bald Eagles that were released at Berkeley Plantation on December 22nd were two of the eagles I exercised daily. Knowing that these birds were fit and healthy made this experience so rewarding, and made me proud of the role I played.

Bald Eagle #15-2015 was one of the first birds I had the opportunity to exercise, not long after I had started my externship. I was amazed the first time I saw Bald Eagles fly! I couldn’t believe how close they flew by me, and the gust of wind their strong wings could make! Patient #15-2015 had a roommate; patient #15-2090. It was amazing to watch the transformation in each of these birds’ flying skills.

My fellow rehabilitation externs and I were originally told to make the eagles fly six to eight times during an exercise session. At first, both eagles found this challenging, as shown by their heavy, open-mouthed breathing. They were also very clumsy; I watched in fear as they sometimes missed the perch they were aiming for, only to come to an ungraceful halt by flying headfirst into the netting, or clinging upside down like a bat! I remember thinking they were quite the comedic duo. Eagle #15-2090 was always the first one to fly off the perch and in the process (almost every time) managed to wing-slap #15-2015 in the face. These eagles were not high-flying aces yet.

Day by day, each eagle slowly improved and week by week, the required number of passes during an exercise session increased. They gradually flew higher and higher. Their stamina improved, as they were no longer heavy breathing, and could make it up to 15, even 20 passes. Their landing skills improved significantly. I was relieved to see they could touch down onto the perch they were aiming for, unlike their many failed attempts when they were starting their conditioning. Eagle #15-2090, still most eager to fly, always seemed to smack 15-2015 in the kisser (the patience of a saint, that one!). To prevent wing damage while living in the flight pens, eagles wear bumpers around their wrist joints. I found this helpful, as the bumpers were marked with different colors and patterns. I only knew 15-2015 as “blue”, and 15-2090 as “red”. However, these bumpers sometimes had a habit of slipping off, or the eagles grew tired of these accessories and attempted to remove them. Uneven bumpers sometimes gave the impression that one bird’s wing was drooping. I would panic about this, only to be told the bumpers were playing tricks on my short-sighted eyes.

Eventually, the announcement came that both eagles were set to be released at Berkeley Plantation, days before Christmas. I was glad the weeks of persistent flight training had paid off for these two.

Prior to being released, each eagle was given a GPS tracker, which allows us to view their travels post-release. I was so pleased when I heard I was to catch one of these eagles and restrain it while Dr. Dave applied this GPS accessory to the (reluctant) eagle. As I bounded up the hill, realization set in that these birds are big, strong, and most likely wouldn’t be happy with my attempts at catching (what was I signing up for?). One thing I learned: eagles are heavy. Another thing: they get heavier the longer you hold them. Patient #15-2015 was the first eagle I ever caught.

I was fortunate to be able to attend the release and to see them fly one final time before they began their journey. Since it was a double release, we didn’t know what to expect. Would they part ways? Would they be best friends forever? Would they engage in fisticuffs with the other resident eagles (my money was on ours -- they were bigger)? To my and everyone else’s amazement, before flying away, they both flew to the same tree and perched for a few minutes together. Then they set off on their new adventures.

WCV Class of 2015