- Associated Press - Sunday, January 22, 2017

KING GEORGE, Va. (AP) - A magnificent adult eagle rescued weeks ago in Caledon State Park was returned to the wild Wednesday between stretches of swamp and brush on a gravel road.

Wildlife Center of Virginia President Ed Clark cautioned the crowd of nearly 100 nature enthusiasts sporting cameras, boots and wide smiles to stay quiet as he removed the female eagle from its cage.

The bird was a little jumpy as Clark reached into the cage in the back of a WCV van to remove it for the release.

It even pecked at a WCV staffer who helped take off the hood that had been placed on the eagle to keep it quiet on the ride from the Waynesboro facility to the park in King George County.

But once Clark got the bird solidly on his heavily gloved arm, it calmed enough for him to walk it through the corridor of people who’d driven from all over the state to see its release.

The leader and cofounder of the nation’s prominent treatment center for wild animals counted to three, giving the group time to pull out their cameras and focus them, and then tossed the eagle up toward the bright blue sky.

To gasps all around, it took the big, strong bird only a few beats of its massive wings to shoot skyward, eventually veering toward the spot where two rangers found it on the ice Dec. 10, after it was injured in a tussle with another eagle.

“Oh, look at that!” said Cathy Earnest, who’d driven from Brandy Station with a friend to see her first release of an eagle treated for injuries. “This was just an opportunity I couldn’t miss,” she added a moment later.

Nina Cox, park manager at Caledon, said the staff was glad to welcome the crowd of folks who filled small buses and a farm wagon for the miles-long trip down to the Alder Flats section of the park for the release.

She noted that a dozen or so eagles treated for various injuries have been released at Caledon over the years, with crowds growing from a dozen or so to the throng drawn Wednesday by news of the release on social media.

Clark, a tireless advocate for wildlife in Virginia and all over the globe, used the moments just before the eagle’s release as an opportunity to warn of a growing threat to the bird that has served as a national symbol.

“In the last four weeks, we’ve had six birds come in, all suffering from lead poisoning,” said Clark, noting that the birds are poisoned by eating carcasses or internal organs hunters leave behind after shooting deer or other game animals with lead ammunition.

WCV eagle statistics for the year 2016: 38 admitted, with only 8 released or still alive. Lead poisoning is the cause of many of those deaths.

“The worst thing about this is that most hunters don’t know this is happening,” he said, noting that a shredded piece of a lead pellet or bullet the size of a grain of rice is enough to be fatal to an eagle. There are, he noted, lead-free alternatives for hunters looking for ammunition that isn’t as harmful to eagles.

“We’re seeing eagles come in with lead levels that are 300 times what it takes to be toxic to the birds,” said Clark.

Another growing concern, according to Clark, is the fact that a growing statewide eagle population is sending the birds into habitats that aren’t really suitable for them, such as landfills and worse.

“Old growth forest along a body of water like the Potomac River is the perfect habitat for these birds,” he said of Caledon, one of two parks in the nation established especially to protect eagle habitat.

The eagle released at Caledon did show it had been exposed to lead at some point, through bloodwork showed the level was too low to require treatment.

Instead, the wildlife vets at WCV treated the bird for a large puncture wound to its back and gave the bird antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs.

Then, after several weeks of healing and observation, the staff said the bird was ready to go back to the wild, which it did at Caledon in a ceremony that had everyone smiling.

“This really was something to see,” said Chuck Buell, who traveled with other members of the Colonial Nature Photographers Club of Williamsburg to shoot pictures of the release. “I think I got a good shot or two.”

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Information from: The Free Lance-Star, https://www.fredericksburg.com/

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