Friday, October 13, 2006

Eagle in a Haystack

Friday October 13 2006

Some people walk into the Forest Service office today, tell our front desk guy they saw an “injured eagle” ”between Devil’s Gate and those shacks” “on the south side of the road.”

Forty-five minutes later, the front desk guy discovers I’m in the office (uncommon, for a Friday). Amy and I get the go-ahead to go find the eagle and take it to a raptor rehab place near Reno, and so launches Eagle Search and Rescue!

How does one rescue an eagle?

Well, first you have to find it, and, good luck with that. (Note to injured bird incident reporters: give many details! Pinpoint it on a map! Take mileage! Note landmarks!) Where exactly between Devil’s Gate and ‘those shacks?’ Which shacks? If those people were rich mansion-living hoo-hahs from L.A., they might have called all those log cabins near Devil’s Gate ‘shacks.’ (One is selling for $750,000.) Maybe they meant the old pack station cabins, about a mile west… or maybe the cabins another mile down near the hot springs… or even Wheeler Guard Station another 1 ½ miles on, or the next old barn (‘shack?’) another mile on… Or maybe they meant the hard-to-see shack (I would call this a shack) a little back in the pines 1 ½ miles east…

And, was the eagle right by the road? In grass or sagebrush or under trees? On the ground? Hopping? Wing/s flapping? Moving? Acting weak? Maybe it had just pounced on a rabbit, was flapping around on the ground trying to hold onto the rabbit and just looked disabled… Was it a bald or golden eagle? Was it even an eagle? A guy I once worked with on the trail crew came back from a hike one day, saying, “Man, I was hiking through these aspens, and this huge eagle attacked me! It was mad! It was dive-bombing me and screeching at me – I had to run!” The attack bird was more than likely a Northern Goshawk, since it was in the trees, and dive-bombing, which is goshawk habitat and behavior, though the goshawk is a little over half the size of an eagle. Perhaps it really was an eagle, but then, this same guy confused turkey vultures with hawks.

And if you do find an injured eagle, how do you catch it? That is a good question. I’ve held spotted owls caught by a noose, and I rescued a long-eared owl two summers ago, but an eagle (if it was an eagle) is big – even a juvenile is going to be 2 ½ feet tall with a 6-7 foot wing span, and those talons…

You bring your supplies: a friend had big portable dog kennels – but he was gone. Instead, I emptied out a big walmart tub with a lid, and brought that along. Leather gloves a must (too bad I didn’t have armpit-length gloves, or chain mail). A thick wool blanket, (and 2 thick tarps for backup) to throw over the bird, and to pad the tub. Binoculars for good measure, and a camera. A little bandana or shirt to cover the bird’s head to help keep him calmer.

If his wing/s are injured, you throw the blanket over the bird, reach in carefully with one hand, slip your fingers around his feet, and as someone else carefully removes the blanket, hold the bird’s wings down close to his body (and try to avoid that beak). With its wings folded and his feet in your hand, the bird is pretty much immobilized. If the bird’s foot/feet are injured, well, I’d have to figure that out when we found him. Of course, this is talking a scared little 12 ounce, 10 inch tall bird with 12” wings and a little beak. What would happen with a mad, big 15-pound plus bird with big sharp talons and a big angry beak, I’d also be playing that by ear.

Well, we walked and walked for several miles each way from Devil’s Gate – along the highway, 30 yard off the highway, both sides of the highway. We came across about a dozen dead deer, a dead great horned owl (barely recognizable), a dead magpie, and, right on the road shoulder… a broken eagle feather, I think a tertial wing feather. We scoured that area extra carefully, but no eagle.

Where could it be? Where did these people actually see it? If it was really injured, how badly? Meaning, how far could it have hopped or flopped away? It’s not easy for me to weave my way around sage and bitter brush, so it can’t be easy for an injured bird to walk or hop very far. We searched tall grass, sage and bitterbrush, willows, ditches. I was actually really tuned in looking for a smaller bird, and I think we would have found any hawk-or-larger-sized bird, if it was there.

We found nothing. Very disappointing: I really wanted to rescue an eagle. I expect many injured birds brought to WAIF – (The Wild Animal Infirmary For Nevada," - donations accepted! Nancy Laird, who runs this place, has dedicated her life to this, and does the work of 20 humans, as does Suzette, her assistant – newsletters are sent to donors) don’t make it, but they receive the best effort and the best care and are either put down humanely or rehabbed and released as soon as possible. The owl I rescued two summers ago had too badly broken a wing; he was put down.

I’m hoping that though not finding and rescuing an injured eagle, but really wanting badly to do so, and searching hard for it still contributes to great eagle karma…

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