November 10, 2011 |

Eagle festival lifts off for 17th year

A completed eagle enclosure, including artificial trees, a waterfall and diorama backdrop will be open for the 17th Alaska Bald Eagle Festival this week.

The master mew at the American Bald Eagle Foundation is part of a $700,000 addition completed last spring.

The display is an important step for the foundation because it allows visitors to see eagles in action, said Cheryl McRoberts, foundation operations manager. "The eagles have an eight-foot wingspan, so you can’t put them in a 10-by-12 mew, because they can’t even flap their wings," she said. "They need to exercise."

Other festival highlights include a "Chocolate Extravaganza Buffet," and wild animal presentation by wildlife park operator Steve Kroschel on Thursday, a dance free to veterans Friday, and the "Flight for Freedom" banquet and fundraiser auction Saturday.

The festival runs through Sunday. A schedule of events is on page 6 and at

Raptor handler Ed Podgorski said this week before he enters the master mew to feed the eagle "Dr. Scott," the bird starts inching closer toward the door in anticipation of food. "I swear he can tell time."

Daily eagle feeding demonstrations are one highlight of the festival this week. The eagle is fed six times a day and eats fish, mice, quail, rabbits and rats.

The foundation houses three eagles, four owls, two red-tailed hawks, a falcon and a raven. "Dr. Scott" is the only eagle in the master mew, which has room for three to five eagles. It will stay in captivity due to a damaged left wing.

"We’re going to work our way up to three and see how they all get along," McRoberts said. She said 10 smaller, outdoor mews there aren’t adequate for eagles with some flight ability.

The master mew has a background scene of the Chilkat River and mountains, photographed by resident Bill McRoberts. The mew mimics an eagle’s natural habitat.

McRoberts said the Friday dance with live music is a new offering for Veterans Day.

"Usually, we just have an open night, and people need something to do," she said. "We have 200-and-some people come from out of town (for the festival)."

McRoberts said 240 people had registered for the festival as of press time Wednesday.

For the second time in three years, the festival will not feature an eagle release ceremony, reflecting the unpredictability of bird rehabilitation.

"Unfortunately, that’s kind of how these things go," said Heather Merewood, executive director of Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage. "We can’t ever release them on our schedule. It always has to be on their schedule and what the birds decide, ultimately."

An eagle from the Anchorage rehabilitation center was slated for release at the festival, but plans changed this week, McRoberts said.

"From (the eagle) sitting in the same place when she was getting all her other wounds healed, she developed some sores on her feet," Merewood said. "Her feet have improved, but now she’s at the point where she needs to gain her strength back."

Merewood said eagles often are released much closer to the Anchorage facility, but "for this big festival, we would make an exception to transport a bird that far for a release."

McRoberts last week said she was "99 percent sure we’d have three juvenile eagles" to release, but two other prospective eagles for release here were ready to return to the wild and let go in Sitka.

A bird presentation in Klukwan will replace the release ceremony Saturday afternoon.

An immature eagle released at the festival last year plopped into the Chilkat River near 21 Mile and later was recaptured due to concerns it wouldn’t survive in the wild. The eagle had broken flight feathers, McRoberts said, that may have been damaged during transport from the Juneau Raptor Center.

The festival has a slate of demonstrations and presentations on wildlife. Resident John Svenson has been named the event’s "Artist of the Year."

"I’m doing the annual poster, which is based on a woodblock print," Svenson said. "It’s a fairly large woodblock print, depicting an eagle and a raven totem pole, and eagles in flight."

Svenson said he studied the woodblock technique in Japan. He carves images into flat pieces of oak plywood and then rolls on ink. Svenson then lifts the ink off with paper.

"Everybody who’s done a potato stamp is basically doing a woodblock," he said.

Svenson said his print is a change in style from previous years at the festival.

"Bald eagle people are generally very photographic, and they like to see every feather and that kind of thing, and this is a little more abstract and simplified, which isn’t really something they’ve done in the past," he said.