The first eagle hopped out of its carrier and onto the grass and looked around, taking a moment to study the small group of spectators, the trees, river, and the sky. Then, I saw in his dark eyes the moment he realized he was free. He opened his broad wings and, in a brown blur, pushed himself into the air.
The second eagle didn’t spend so long sitting around, rather came out, bounced off the ground, and was then up and away. They each flew out over the St. Croix River, disoriented but right at home.
This pair of eaglets were each nursed to health after serious injuries in recent months by a new nonprofit wild bird rehabilitation center in Spooner, Wis.
Photos courtesy Winged Freedom’s Facebook page
Winged Freedom Raptor Hospital is led by retired veterinarian Kim Ammann, who cared for wild birds throughout her career and wouldn’t quit when she retired, creating the nonprofit and building a rehab facility at her home. She was celebrating two successes today, setting free this pair of young eagles for second chances.
The eagles were named Ranger and Both. Ranger was rescued on Sept. 3 not far away in Range, Wis., suffering a serious spinal issue. Both was struck by a car near Webb Lake, Wis. which broke both his legs. Despite difficult recoveries, the birds were ready to return to the wild.
At Winged Freedom, the birds received several weeks of care. Shortly after Both was brought in on Sept. 19, Dr. Ammann operated on him to fix his broken legs — she marveled that he was up and standing on them just 90 minutes after surgery.
“Both is a great patient,” Winged Freedom shared on Facebook. “He leaves the complicated pin apparatuses alone and he lays down when his feet get sore… He discusses his objections every day when his room is cleaned (he generates a lot of dirty laundry), but takes it all in stride knowing that once cleaning is done a dish of food shows up.”
Now, seven weeks after being rescued, Both was going back to the wild. There would be no one to clean his room or bring him dishes of food anymore. But there would be the wide open skies of the St. Croix Valley.
Releasing Both. (Greg Seitz/St. Croix 360)
As we waited for the release, a faint frigid rain spattered the surface of the river, the bluffs were gray and brown, and winter was not far off. That’s why Ammann said it was time to release the eagles, when they would still have a chance to get settled before the deep freeze. It’s also why she had decided to release them at Lions Park, not far above the hydroelectric dam in St. Croix Falls. There should be open water around the dam during winter, giving the birds a chance to find fish.
Or, maybe they will follow the St. Croix south, perhaps spend the winter along the Mississippi near Wabasha, Minn. That’s where hundreds of eagles can sometimes be seen congregating on the ice around open patches of water. In any case, it would be up to them.
The two birds were young, only having hatched this spring, and still bearing their brown juvenile feathers; bald eagles don’t develop their characteristic white heads and tails until they’re about four or five years old. Learning to feed and fend for themselves is a difficult time in any eagle’s life.
It felt great to see them fly off, Ammann said. Winged Freedom has treated more than 100 raptors so far this year, birds that were harmed by lead fishing tackle or ammunition, hit by cars, sickened by West Nile Virus, and other ailments. Many of them required euthanasia, so, when Ranger and Both flew away, it was a rare reward.
Among the group was Todd Hartmann, who had called Winged Freedom back in September when he saw the ailing Ranger languishing on the edge of a lake. Also there were Dennis and Sue Dunn, Winged Freedom’s primary rescuers and transporters. They had answered Hartmann’s call and arrived an hour later, wading into the water to save the bird.
I was standing perhaps thirty feet in front of and off to the side when Both was released. When he took flight, I was in his way. I ducked at the last second, and the stiff, strong primary feathers on the tip of his right wing softly slapped against my shoulder. Then he was out above the water, surrounded by white pine and red oak, nothing between him and the sky. Later, I thought it was probably the last human contact of the rest of his life.
While Both crossed the river and promptly disappeared into the trees, Ranger stuck around a while. He first perched in a tall tree overlooking the river, and then seemed to celebrate his newfound freedom — flying loops over the river, swooping down and soaring high, stretching his wings, feeling the wind against his feathers.
The group of people could only watch in wonder as he wheeled across the gray sky. His future was his own again.
Ranger displays his flying skills. (Greg Seitz/St. Croix 360)