West Hayden Island Bald Eagle Returns to the Sky

Bird Alliance of Oregon released a rehabilitated female Bald Eagle today at Kelley Point Park, just across the river from the bird’s home on West Hayden Island. With a crowd of 350 well-wishers looking on, executive director Meryl Redisch opened a panel on the eagle’s carrying container, and the raptor sprinted out, took to the air and flew strongly to a tree 500 feet away.

Photo by Scott Carpenter

The eagle quickly drew the attention of local wildlife. Crows began to mob her, an Osprey circled and called overhead, and a second female eagle flew in for a close look and eventually landed on a branch just a few feet away – all normal responses to a new predator in their midst. The displays occurred for quite some time before the eagle took to the air again and disappeared back into the wild.

“It was amazing to see so many people come out to the release and show their support for this bird,” said Lacy Campbell, the Bird Alliance of Oregon’s Wildlife Care Center operations manager. “Saving this eagle was truly a community effort.”

Bird Alliance of Oregon originally admitted the eagle to its Wildlife Care Center in November 2013 after the bird was found injured on West Hayden Island. Conservation director Bob Sallinger hiked two miles round-trip to retrieve the 11-pound raptor, and his return trek was made entirely after nightfall – quite an undertaking when walking with an eagle in hand.

An exam revealed the bird had puncture wounds on her feet and nerve damage to her right wing, all likely the result of a territorial dispute with another eagle. Further examination revealed the eagle had suffered a variety of other injuries throughout her life. She carried a pellet in her chest from an old gunshot injury and had evidence of an old bone fracture to her left wing.

Of greatest concern was a significant injury to her right eye that had left the bird with only partial vision. Eagles with significant eye injuries are usually not released back into the wild – the conventional wisdom is that eagles cannot survive in the wild without full use of both eyes. However, veterinary ophthalmologist Susan Kirschner confirmed the eagle’s eye injury was old and that the bird had in fact been surviving with the injury for quite some time.

Photo by Tom Schmid

Even more intriguing was the fact that a local resident of Hayden Island, David Redthunder, has been photographing the nesting eagles on West Hayden Island for several years. After reviewing dozens of David’s photos, we were able to find one from 2012 where we could clearly see the injured eye. The bird had not only survived two years in the wild with the injured eye, but she also had likely nested and raised young!

“It’s remarkable how much this bird has survived,” said Bird Alliance of Oregon veterinarian Deb Sheaffer. “Not only did she arrive with evidence of multiple past injuries, but treating her right wing proved to be no easy feat.”

It took nearly six months for the eagle to regain full use of her right wing. She then spent several weeks in Bird Alliance of Oregon’s 100-foot flight cage to build up her strength, and she was also flown on a creance, an old falconry technique in which a bird is allowed to fly out in the open on the end of a 200-foot-long line attached to its legs. By the end of May, the eagle was ready for release.

Back in the wild once more, the eagle will continue to face challenges. A vision-impaired eagle is at a disadvantage, and the bird’s home on West Hayden Island is under threat. The Port of Portland has tried for years to convert much of the 800+ acre natural area on West Hayden Island into parking lots and marine industrial terminals. In early 2014, facing intense opposition from the community, the port backed away from its annexation efforts, but long-term protection for the area’s floodplain forests and meadows is in no way certain.

“It was amazing to see the eagle fly free again,” said Sallinger. “She is one tough bird, and she has survived a lot. Now we need to permanently protect her home.”

Photo by Tom Schmid

Bird Alliance of Oregon would like to thank Portland Parks and Recreation for providing a release site near the eagle’s home on West Hayden Island. Several other organizations and individuals have also pitched in to help the eagle return to the wild: VCA Rock Creek Animal Hospital provided digital X-rays, veterinary radiologist Jennifer Tepavich of VCA Northwest Veterinary Specialists performed the eagle’s CT scan, Carole Hallett banded the bird prior to her release, Sauvie Island Elementary provided a site for creance flying sessions, and good Samaritan Peter Rutkowski first sighted and reported the injured eagle.