November 24, 2011 |

Trio rescues young eagle from clutches of icy river

Three rescuers used a rope harness, a couple two-by-fours, and a pair of Pampered Chef scissors to free a juvenile eagle frozen in the Chilkat River near 21 Mile Haines Highway on Nov. 17.

California wildlife photographer Mark Lissick spotted the bird – literally spread-eagle on the ice and not moving – while returning from a photo outing. He said he’d seen several eagles that day with ice on their wing and tail feathers.

"This one had basically gotten itself mired in the ice," Lissick said. He stopped at a 19 Mile cabin, where Taal Levi, a researcher serving as Bald Eagle Preserve monitor, contacted the American Bald Eagle Foundation.

The foundation’s raptor handler, Ed Podgorski, and volunteer Manda Maggs met up with Levi and arrived at the river to find the bird, wings expanded, struggling against the ice.

"He was kicking the water under him, throwing the water up around him and just getting more and more stuck," Maggs said. "He was flopping like a fish," Podgorski said.

The eagle was stuck about 50 feet from the riverbank. As the lightest of the three, Maggs volunteered to test the ice.

Levi and Podgorski fitted Maggs with a rope harness. Kneeling on two, two-by-fours, she "skated" out on the ice. Within just a few feet of the eagle, the rope harness ran out of slack.

Fortunately, Podgorski had purchased rope for the foundation’s raptor perches just before receiving word about the eagle. With the extra line, Maggs reached the bird. Its wings and tail were firmly frozen to the river surface under about an inch of ice, with other chunks of ice attached to its body.

Maggs put a net over the eagle’s head to protect herself from getting nipped and stayed mindful of the bird’s talons. She set to work chipping away the ice with a pair of kitchen scissors. Then she cut most of the primary and secondary layer of feathers from the wings and some of the tail feathers to free the eagle from the ice.

She wrapped the eagle in her scarf for the journey back to shore. "I bundled him up like a little burrito."

Maggs hugged the eagle to her chest and rolled onto her back, and Podgorski and Levi pulled her to within a few feet of the shore, where she broke through the ice in a few feet of water.

A resident of Teslin, Y.T., Maggs spent the last few months in Haines volunteering at the foundation. Her husband, Mike Dunn, happened to be on his way to Haines for a visit when he drove by 21 Mile and spotted the rescue. He noticed her familiar maple-leaf- knit hat while she was crawling out on the ice.

Maggs warmed up in Dunn’s truck while Podgorski tended to the eagle and transported it back to the foundation. Podgorski, Dr. Dan Hart and foundation staff gave it warm fluids and electrolytes.

Maggs meanwhile was feeling the effects of her cold dunk. She said she was "seeing stars" that evening, but her husband and step-mom, who is a nurse, made sure she was OK. And the adrenaline rush didn’t hurt either.

"I felt like a superhero," Maggs said.

Maggs and Dunn, who hope to open a raptor rehab center in the Yukon someday, returned to the foundation Tuesday morning, and were pleased to find the eagle in good health.

"I was prepared to come in and see that he didn’t make it," she said.

The eagle isn’t able to fly due to the loss of feathers. Once it molts next year and its feathers return, it should be ready for release next spring or summer. It was flown Tuesday to the Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka.

It’s unclear how the eagle got stuck in the icing river. Podgorski said the bird had a full crop when it was found, indicating it had just eaten a big meal. That likely helped its survival.

Eagles typically stay still when they have a big crop, Podgorski said, speculating that this one may have decided to rest on the barely frozen river and got caught in the forming ice. Podgorski and Maggs said also the bird’s age might have played a part in its predicament. Podgorski estimates it’s only a few months out of the nest.

"He’s a yearling so he’s not that smart," Maggs said. "There’s a lot to learn and hunting is hard."