It was May 25, the Thursday before Memorial Day weekend, and a juvenile male bald eagle was flying over the Anchorage Wildlife Conservation Center in Girdwood.
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Suddenly, he spotted something intriguing in a buffalo pen and swooped down for a closer inspection. Whether or not he noticed the calving buffalos is anyone's guess.
"The buffaloes had babies around, and they didn't care for an eagle sitting there," said Cindy Palmatier, the rehabilitation director of the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage. "So they stomped him."
A full-size buffalo sat on the eagle. The beast's hooves pinned the bird's tail to the ground. The eagle attempted to crawl out from underneath, but the weight of his giant captor tore off his tail feathers and broke many of his wing feathers.
Surprisingly, the bird was not killed. He suffered an abrasion and some slight head trauma, but he survived. And he had a new name: "Buffalo Bill."
"I can't imagine him wanting to eat anything that was in a buffalo pen, but he may have just been one of the less-than-bright eagles," Palmatier said. "He was just a mess. We patched him up, but he was very slow. He didn't show any fear. He would just sit there and look at you. It was like he wasn't quite hitting on all cylinders."
After 51/2 months at the Bird TLC rehabilitation center in Anchorage, Buffalo Bill's feathers have grown back, he's re-built his strength and he's ready for his reintroduction to the wild.
Bill is one of six eagles that will be released at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 11, during the 12th annual Alaska Bald Eagle Festival, Nov. 8-12 at the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve in Haines. The five-day party includes photography workshops, guided eagle viewing, featured entertainers, speakers and presentations.
For a complete list of events, and biographies of the speakers, visit www.baldeaglefestival.org
The Haines festival is one of the largest bald eagle celebrations in the world. As many as 3,000 eagles will congregate, mainly to feast on the area's late salmon run. Haines had its highest chum run since 1994 and one of the best coho runs in recent memory, according to Haines biologist Randy Bachman.
Want to see thousands of bald eagles at once?
What: 12th annual Alaska Bald Eagle Festival.
Where: Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, Haines.
When: Wednesday, Nov. 8-Sunday, Nov. 12.
Key non-eagle celebrities: Al Batt, humorist, festival emcee; Thomas D. Mangelsen, photographer of the year; Jon Van Zyle, artist of the year; Debbie Miller, author of the year; David Hancock, esteemed author; and more.
For more information: Visit www.baldeaglefestival.org for a complete schedule of events and participants. Call (907) 766-3094 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Transportation: The Taku is heading from Juneau to Haines at 11:45 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 10. It returns that night. Visit www.FerryAlaska.com for more information. Or plot a flight.
Round-trip Saturday catamaran from Juneau: Leaves Don Statter Harbor in Auke Bay at 7:30 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 11. Departs from Haines at 4 p.m. the same day. Ticket includes round-trip travel, guided nature tour (including 1:30 p.m. eagle release) and a pass for all of the day's events. Tickets are $85 for adults, $55 for children under 10; available at Hearthside Books. Discounts available for groups of eight or more. Call 586-2207. Proceeds benefit the American Bald Eagle Foundation.
"In Haines, they have food at this time of the year," Palmatier said. "That's what makes it such a wonderful release site. Here in Anchorage, the pickings are pretty slim. It's the last release of the year, and anybody that's left after this has to winter over. I don't know of any other place that releases more eagles, or has more of them hanging around, unless it was the Homer Spit when everyone was feeding them."
"This is pretty much the last big event for us," said Jaime Sorg of the Juneau Raptor Center. "This time of year it's getting colder, it's icing up and there's not as much open water. The eagles are close together, and they're all hunting in that same small area of open water that hasn't iced up."
If you attend the eagle releases, you may notice a few different responses from the birds. The adults will often fly to a nearby tree and get their bearings before continuing, Palmatier said. Juveniles are sometimes more aggressive and will relish the chance to flee.
"We did a release in Fairbanks (in the summer of 2005) before the (Midnight Sun Intertribal Powwow) and that bird soared straight up and circled the field four times before it took off," Palmatier said. "It was probably the most picture-perfect release I have ever seen."
The Bird TLC and the Juneau Raptor Center will take any eagles that come in. The difficult part is deciding whether or not the bird can be rehabilitated. Ideally, they can heal well enough to return to the wild. A second option life in captivity, an animal park or a zoo.
"Very seldom do you have one that would rather be in captivity," Palmatier said. "They just really don't take to people that much unless they come in as a very tiny baby."
The birds usually progress from an intake area to the main clinic - a restricted space where they can't hurt themselves. As they heal, they move to a larger outdoor space with more freedom. Eventually, they're moved to a "flight mew," a small enclosure that measures about 20 feet high, 30 feet wide and 100 feet long. Typically, the birds will spend three to four months in the mew, exercising before release.
Here's a look at the two other eagles from the Bird TLC that will be released in Haines:
#0606 - Flying through the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge in February, this juvenile crashed into wire and suffered a nasty cut to his wing. He was brought into the Bird TLC in Anchorage, where he insisted on chewing the wound. "We had to wait for the wing to heal and get him through that self-mutilation issue before we could start the recovery process," Palmatier said. "I don't think you'll notice anything wrong with him."
#0612 - This juvenile bird hails from a small village west of Anchorage, where he ate too much and got too bloated to fly. Three rampaging dogs sensed an opportunity and pounced. A passing schoolteacher scared off the dogs. The bird was covered in bite wounds but escaped serious injury. "He was just grubby and dirty and covered in dog spit," Palmatier said.
Korry Keeker can be reached at email@example.com