Eagle release among draws at 19th festival
Release of a rehabilitated bald eagle, new research on migration patterns of Chilkat eagles, and tales of a week spent living in an eagle’s nest will be featured at the 19th annual Alaska Bald Eagle Festival, a week-long event starting Monday.
Festival coordinator Cheryl McRoberts said the eagle that will be released Saturday is a juvenile discovered on Kodiak Island, covered in linseed oil, emaciated and unable to fly. “They cleaned him and he is now ready to be released,” McRoberts said.
The release has been a festival favorite, and for reasons obvious to people who’ve had the privilege of letting one go. American Bald Eagle Foundation founder Dave Olerud was surprised by the “prop wash” generated by wings each longer than three feet when he released an eagle about a decade ago.
“The power of one beat of that wing took that bird and threw it into the sky with tremendous power. When I got hit in the face with that first flap of the wings, it was educational for the rest of my life. It’s stayed with me a long time,” Olerud said this week.
Olerud will be joined at the festival by another veteran eagle advocate, Doris Mager, dubbed “The Eagle Lady of Florida” by former Gov. Bob Graham. Mager was a saleswoman and housewife helping out at an Audubon Society office near Orlando in 1963 when she took in a red-tailed hawk with an infected foot. She nursed it back to health with Epsom salt baths.
At that time, raptor medicine wasn’t very advanced, Mager said in an interview this week. Veterinarians were learning alongside lay people like herself. She spent 15 years nursing birds, rehabilitating about 80 eagles and releasing 15 into the wild. “I was one of the first people in Florida to pick up an eagle.”
Frustrated by the number of birds wounded by gunshots, Mager surrendered her bird-treating permit and secured a permit for handling raptors. She took her birds on the lecture circuit as an educator, hoping respect for the birds she imparted to schoolchildren might rub off on their parents.
Now 88, Mager heads up Save Our American Raptors, and has spread her message on trips around the United States and the world.
“People are still shooting red-tailed hawks. My message is still about the same. Birds of prey are misunderstood by many people. People think they’re all vultures, and will still kill them for the fun of it. People need to know that God put every animal on earth for a reason, and every one of them depends on another one,” Mager said.
While there are fewer eagle shootings and less problems from substances like the pesticide DDT, which were issues when she started her career, new threats have arisen, including loss of habitat to development, increasing numbers of collisions with automobiles, and new toxins, she said.
“We always have to be vigilant. We have to stay out of (raptors’) hair, but we also need to be there when they’re in trouble. Learning about Mother Nature, this is what it’s all about,” Mager said.
Mager has thrown herself into efforts to raise money for her cause, including by writing a book and by riding a bicycle across the country at age 60.
In 1979, she spent a week in an unoccupied eagle’s nest to raise money to build a Florida aviary. Securing permission required the approval of U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials in Washington, D.C ., and the nest was a small one, only about four feet deep, about 50 feet up a pine tree, at the edge of a lake.
“When I got in there, I hung on (but) it was great to wake up in the morning and see what the eagles saw. I could understand why the eagles loved it. They could look out over the lake every day and fly over it and back… I can still see that lake and the morning fog on it,” she said.
Mager, who visited Haines in October 1985, said she’s excited to get back to the Chilkat Valley. As this trip will be nearer to the peak of the eagle migration to the Chilkat than her previous one, she’s hoping to see more birds. Also, she said, Alaska eagles are bigger than ones in Florida, sometimes twice as large. “It’s a beautiful bird to see in flight.”
According to Pam Randles of Takshanuk Watershed Council, there are eagles to see. Randles has conducted weekly counts of eagles here since Sept. 14, employing a class of junior high homeschool students. Last week, they counted 700 at the Council Grounds near 20 Mile Haines Highway.
Unseasonally warm weather has kept eagles relatively dispersed, and also kept some other species around, including hummingbirds and collared doves. “We’re running a little later (for concentration of birds), but that’s not surprising, considering winter is in general running a little later.”
November’s cold typically freezes over large sections of the Chilkat, Tsirku and Klehini rivers, leaving open only an area of warm upwellings near 20 Mile where eagles can find fish.
As for the festival, Randles said she’s most looking forward to a presentation by researcher Rachel Wheat, who has been tracking Chilkat eagles using satellite technology. Preliminary findings show male eagles here in the fall fly as far as 5,000 miles a year, with a range that includes Washington state, the Yukon Territory and Anchorage.
“It’s awesome stuff. There’s been (flight range) data over time. This is filling in the gaps and is more long term. We’re getting a sense of where they’re going, when they’re going and what they’re doing there,” Randles said.
Other festival presenters include Tlingit master carver Wayne Price of Haines, who will speak about building traditional dugout canoes, and Haines fisheries biologist Rich Chapell. Most festival events will be held at the American Bald Eagle Foundation. A festival schedule can be found on page 8 of this newspaper and at http://www.eagles.org.