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Injured golden eagle released after rehabilitation

BEDFORD – As a wildlife rehabilitator, Gwenn Johnston gets some odd packages. None will compare to the golden eagle released Wednesday from the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Moments after it soared from a Bedford County overlook, she recalled how, on Jan. 11, a conservation officer brought in a big box with a big injured bird inside. It had been caught in a coyote foot trap in Craig County.

“I remember looking in and seeing this brown head,” Johnston said. “I knew it was definitely an eagle, but I thought it was a young bald eagle.”

Unboxed, she realized she had one of maybe 1,000 to 2,000 golden eagles estimated to live in eastern North America.

“I said, ‘Oh my God!’”

For 25 years she has specialized in helping injured songbirds and raptors in what she described as a M.A.S.H. unit at the Blue Ridge Animal Hospital in Bedford, trying to get them stabilized before transporting them to specialized animal hospitals. Before the January encounter, she said, she had only seen one wild golden eagle years ago during a trip to the Grand Canyon.

Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries eagle biologist Jeff Cooper said little to nothing is known about the golden eagle population east of the Mississippi River. While the big brown birds are not uncommon in the western United States, the eastern birds are geographically isolated and much more rare than even bald eagles.

After Johnston and her husband braved an ice storm Jan. 12 to take the eagle to the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro, one of its damaged toes was amputated, veterinarian Dave McRuer said. The eagle still should be able to hunt and feed normally, but he noted the bird had not hunted or fed on its own during captivity because of stress.

Instead, he said, it had to be fed by hand. While the bird had gained weight, it was important to release it back into the wild now so that it could regain flying strength in time to migrate north in the spring, he said.

The eagle was released around 1:30 p.m. before a crowd of about 50 birdwatchers and other ecologists at the overlook at mile marker 95 on the parkway.

He quickly swooped down the steep slope and out of sight.

“My heart just soars with that eagle,” Johnston said. “That is the absolute payoff for the years of training and hard work.

“Even though it was just a short moment, it’s burned into my psyche forever.”

Cooper said the release area was selected in part to provide enough space to accommodate everyone who wanted to be present, and in part to force the bird to fly away because of the cliff at the Harvey’s Knob overlook. Golden eagles sometimes forage along the ground, he said, and the last thing he wanted was for the bird to fly a few feet, then run off like a glorified turkey.

The golden eagle went aloft tagged and fitted with a permanent transmitter to help track it, part of ongoing studies into migration patterns of captured and released birds from areas in the middle Appalachians to summer nests in northeastern Canada. The studies are of particular interest to biologists who want to stop energy companies from building wind turbine farms in migratory paths of the birds. The birds also are being studied to determine if they are different from their western brethren.

More information about the eagle will be posted on the Wildlife Center and VDGIF websites as tracking information is available. Cooper said the tracking information is constantly gathered, but only is transmitted in bursts when the transmitter can get a cellular signal out to a phone tower.