Independence Day Weekend came to a close last night with some excitement for St. Croix River citizens and two symbols of American freedom — a pair of bald eagles in mortal danger.
Just upstream from Marine on St. Croix, boaters Andy and Ann Kirn were watching the two big birds yesterday afternoon as they appeared to fly very close to each other. When the eagles swiftly flew through some trees and disappeared, the boaters went to see what happened.
That’s when they found the birds in the water, struggling to stay afloat, still connected. The eagles had actually been making contact in the air, but when their talons got tangled, they fell into the river.
Now they were struggling to stay afloat.
It’s not known why they seemed to be fighting. It may have been that one eagle was attempting to drive an intruder from its breeding territory — there is an eyrie nearby where a chick hatched this spring.
“Most aggression among adults in response to territorial disputes during nesting; among all ages in response to competition for food any time of the year, but especially during winter, and for favorite foraging perches and roosting sites; and among nestlings for food,” according to the Cornell Lab or Ornithology. “Territorial Bald Eagles may chase nonbreeders, especially adults, from the territory.”
Locking talons and falling together is also a courtship behavior, but would likely occur later in the year.
Whatever the reason, these eagles were in trouble.
What ensued was a challenging rescue, including local marina manager Mike Zajac and his restauranteur wife Megan Kavanagh, the Washington County Sheriff’s office, Tod Drescher and Dorothy Deetz, Charlotte Wilcox, and the University of Minnesota Raptor Center.
Eagles have a reflex to lock their talons when involved in a struggle. It’s helpful for holding onto prey, but not when engaged in aerial combat.
In the water, one bird was clearly disadvantaged, with the other eagle beating its wings to swim — and hitting its adversary every time. Both birds were also making what Ann described as “heartbreaking cries.”
With little mobile phone service, the group organized a rescue effort that didn’t end until a second mission as dark fell. Contacting the Raptor Center, the group was instructed to get the birds on solid footing — the only way they would release their talons — and then separate them with a paddle.
So that’s what they did. The effort was complicated by high water, and nervous birds.
Boater Andy Kirn entered the water, with Deputy Sheriff Cable on Zajac’s boat. Zajac piloted through flooded islands and complicated currents. Everyone was afraid of further frightening and fatiguing the eagles, and the sharp talons and beaks were also a safety concern for the humans.
The deputy saw a shipping palette on Zajac’s work boat, and came up with the idea to get the birds onto it. With the sheriff’s deputy on the bow of Zajac’s boat using a pole to push the birds, Kirn pushed the palette underneath them.
This let the birds loosen their grip enough that they could be pushed apart with a canoe paddle, again on the advice of Raptor Center experts.
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The eagles were separated but soaked and weakened. The rescue party left them alone, but their work was not finished. The Raptor Center was worried the birds may have been injured badly enough that they might not survive, and asked Zajac to check on the birds.
“Mike and Megan, on their pontoon with family enjoying a weekend wind-down, detoured to the flooded islands just above the marina to find one bird still in obvious distress clinging to a log, with another bird (the opponent or a mate?) in a tree above,” river resident Missy Bowen reported.
That’s when the Raptor Center volunteer, Terry Headley, left her home in Fridley and came to attempt a rescue that could bring the birds in for medical care.
As nightfall approached, the rescuers set out once again, carrying Headley to the last known location of the eagles. Zajac got the boat as close to the bird as possible before Headley climbed onto fallen trees and tried to reach the eagle.
It was getting dark, but Bowen, who joined the group for this stage, managed to capture the grainy images above.
“Terry wound her way along several tree trunks to get at it, but it kept spooking. We felt bad for making it struggle,” Bowen said. “The second bird flapped overhead and quickly took off, proving it was OK.”
Finally the bird retreated into a thicket. Zajac got in the water and worked with Headley to corner the bird, wrapped it in Mike’s t-shirt and brought it to the boat. Headley drove it to the Raptor Center, where veterinarians will care for it. Bowen said it looked badly injured, and everyone involved worries it won’t survive.
Zajac said it was cool to be that close to an eagle, and to handle it, especially seeing the size of the talons. But he said “the most amazing thing” was watching Headley at work. At 67-years-old with a replacement hip, she shimmied along the tree trunks and brought out the big raptor.
Bowen and others thanked the many people who helped, particularly Headley and the Raptor Center, and Mike Zajac and Megan Kavanagh.
Update via Missy Bowen: “Terry Headley of the Raptor Center just let me know that the captured bird is a five-year-old female. She has bruising and puncture wounds, and, according to Terry, ‘should survive her injuries.’”