Dusty the eagle jerked his hooded head up, as if searching for the sky, when volunteers from the Juneau Raptor Center removed the pillowcase that covered him Saturday afternoon at Brotherhood Bridge.
They carefully transferred the young female bird - who had been found this June in Haines with a deep puncture wound in her chest - to Juneau Mayor Sally Smith, who held Dusty against her for a steadying moment before flinging out her arms.
Dusty briefly flew low over the brushy meadow, past Juneau Police Sgt. Ben Coronell, a Tlingit who wore an alder eagle hat carved recently by Stanley Marsden, a 76-year-old Tsimshian Indian from Craig. Dusty quickly veered behind some trees and was gone from sight.
That's what makes all the hours of work worthwhile for the raptor center's
volunteers, who rehabilitate injured birds in their garages and backyard enclosures.
"It's definitely the payment we get," said Kathy Benner, a board member at the raptor center who helped rehabilitate Dusty.
Sometime in 2006 the all-volunteer group hopes to break ground on a permanent rehabilitation and education center on land the city recently acquired next to Brotherhood Park in the Mendenhall Valley.
The raptor center held a ceremony Saturday at Riverbend Elementary School to thank participants in the land deal, which transferred 10 1/2 acres of meadow and part of a spruce-covered hill to the city through a national land trust. Participants have been working on the deal for three years.
About 50 people attended and later watched the release of Dusty at the park.
Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, garnered the $350,000 in federal conservation funds to buy the land from Constance Carnes. The Carnes family had used the area to pasture horses for their children and other youngsters. Carnes said she wanted to see it continue to be open space.
"I'm just thrilled that they chose that property," she said of the raptor center.
The Trust for Public Land, a national land conservation organization, placed an option on the land while its staff looked for purchase money. It received the federal funds and immediately transferred ownership to the city, which has added the plot to the adjacent Brotherhood Park.
"Our mission is land for people," said Rinee Merritt, Northwest project manager for the trust. It helps other entities acquire and protect land. "Hopefully, we'll own the property for two minutes. That's our goal."
Connie McKenzie, a staff assistant for Stevens in Juneau, said the new center would mean that injured birds would get the treatment they need, and the center would be able to expand its educational programs.
"It gives the volunteers one set place to work," said volunteer Scot Tiernan. "When you are scattered around, volunteers have to go from house to house. Garages work. But a set facility with all the supplies already there is better for us and better for birds."
The raptor center hopes to raise $6.5 million to build what it calls the Alaska Coastal Wildlife Center, of which the raptor center will be a program, said raptor center President Sandy Harbanuk. The rehabilitation and education centers probably will be in separate buildings.
The road-accessible site is close to veterinarians and the airport, and has utilities, Harbanuk said. The raptor center will have a clinic and large enclosures for birds to "stretch and flap," she said.
Plans for the educational center aren't complete, but organizers have talked about having a climbable eagle's nest for children and other hands-on activities, a wildlife library, wet lab and classroom.
Some of the roughly 200 birds the raptor center treats each year have to be euthanized. Some birds are rehabilitated and returned to the wild. But some that can't go back to nature are kept for educational programs.
The raptor center has taken birds to schools. But a permanent center will let it develop the educational program further, said board member John Eiler.
"The idea is to have types of educational tools that will do a better job of explaining natural systems, particularly for students," he said.
The raptor center can be reached at 586-8393.
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.