A Mighty Fighter
From the Winter 2021 Issue
Daring eagle rescue at Kootenai Wildlife Refuge
by Annie Pflueger
(KR EAGLES photo)
The Kootenai River Eagles, often seen at the Kootenai Wildlife Refuge near Bonners Ferry, have returned to the same nest, successfully raising twin eaglets for several years. The pair have provided many onlookers with a unique and wonderful glimpse into their world.
As a nature and wildlife photographer, I routinely visited the active nest on a daily basis.
The 2020 season was especially exciting. Instead of twin eaglets, there were triplets! Three babies hatched several days apart and were vastly different in size and strength. The firstborn and much larger youngster had taken his first flight and fledged, but remained close to the nest.
(MOMENT OF IMPACT photo)
Ten days later, the second eaglet was observed performing the same first flight ritual of wing flapping and hopping on the nest when its left wing came down on a branch that was vertical and erect. As the young bird struggled to free itself, the impaled branch only went deeper and further through the wing.
(D ~ NEST HANG photo)
The trapped eaglet’s repeated attempts to free itself resulted in it hanging by the trapped wing, with its feet dangling off the side of the nest. The nest was precariously placed, approximately 75 feet in the air and between two trees that leaned out over the river. The bird’s entire weight was supported only by the branch that impaled the wing.
(E ~ TREK TO THE TOP photo)
Realizing time was of the essence, I contacted the experts in raptor rescue and a local arborist who could determine if it was feasible to access the nest and safely free the doomed eaglet. Janie and Don Veltkamp of Birds of Prey Northwest traveled to assist while Michael Richardson, Sarah Jimenez, and Matt Bennett of Skywalker Tree Care assessed the grave situation. Boat captain Genny Hoyle was also available to help.
(F~ THE BOAT photo)
The boat was positioned with Captain Genny and Sarah on board, in the event the remaining youngest eagle tried to fly from the nest and drop into the river. Indeed, when Michael ultimately reached the nest, the second eaglet did awkwardly fly from her home, landing in the water but safely at the river’s edge. Since this fallen bird was not quite ready to fly well on its own, it would be taken to BOPNW’s facility for two weeks of additional growth before being released.
(G ~ THE APPROACH photo)
Carrying a raptor hood, Michael and Matt made the long and cautious climb up the tree from the ground. When they reached the severely injured eagle, the bird was exhausted, weak, and in shock. Placing a hood over the bird’s head helped keep the bird calm and the handlers safe. Once the bird was hooded, they gently lifted its wing off the branch.
(H ~ LOWERING INTO THE BOAT photo)
The debilitated eaglet was placed in a large duffle bag and gently lowered down the rope 70 feet to the waiting boat below. Once in Janie’s experienced hands, the raptor’s condition was assessed. The eaglet was bleeding and her body core temperature was dangerously low after being exposed to the elements for two and a half days with no food.
(I ~ WING WOUND photo)
The wing sustained severe damage and was actively bleeding. A puncture wound larger than a golf ball was left by the branch that held the raptor prisoner. Janie provided medical attention on the spot, stabilizing the eaglet by injecting fluids, antibiotics, and pain medication.
(J~ FIRST MEAL photo)
The raptor was then fed its first meal in almost three days through a gastric tube down the esophagus into the stomach. The injured eaglet’s condition was very guarded and the prognosis was not promising. Yet despite the odds, the rescue team felt they had made the right decision in freeing the eaglet from certain doom.
(K ~ RESCUE TEAM photo)
The team celebrated and said an emotional goodbye to the injured eaglet, now named “Kootenai.” It would travel with its sibling, now affectionately called “Boundary,” to the Birds of Prey NW rehab center for additional care and observation. To everyone’s surprise and relief, at BOPNW the injured eaglet survived the night thanks to round the clock treatments of antibiotics and feedings every few hours.
(L ~ VETERINARY TREATMENT)
The following morning, Janie took the fragile raptor for examination at Kootenai Veterinary Hospital. The bird’s wing tissue was infected and dying. The massive puncture would require surgery. The left leg was battered but an X-ray showed no fracture, despite the bird’s hesitation to use it. After surgery and back at BOPNW, the young bird’s condition remained extremely guarded, requiring continued antibiotics and tube feeding. Yet each day the young raptor gained strength and weight. Kootenai was a mighty fighter with a strong will to live.
(M ~ BOUNDARY’S RELEASE)
Twelve days later, The Veltkamps traveled the three hours back up to Bonner’s Ferry, bringing the youngest triplet “Boundary” for release near the nest where the three siblings were born. Boundary was now strong enough to fledge and be with the family once again.
The eaglet was placed on the ground. As the original rescue team watched with hope and optimism, the beautiful eagle took off, flew across the river and perched in a tall tree.
Over the next several weeks, property owners Dave and Brenda Walters witnessed the reunited eagle family commingle in harmony, actively feeding near the nest.
Boundary’s release was a tremendous success!
(N ~ KOOTENAI UPDATE)
Kootenai’s condition continues to improve, although the bird faces a very uncertain future. The extensive nerve damage to the wing could be a lasting injury, leaving the bird unable to fly in the wild to hunt or stay safe. For now, Kootenai remains in the great care of Birds of Prey Northwest, with the goal being to eventually release the bird back into the wild. If the injury is permanent, Kootenai will become a teaching bird to help promote raptor education and conservation of these extraordinary creatures.
(O~ CLOSING photo)
This encounter with Kootenai put me in the right place at the right time, and the series of events that followed have been life changing for me. Persistence, love of nature, and profound determination by a group of strangers working together paid off. I am forever grateful for the expertise of each and every person on the rescue team—who are strangers to me no more.
As of late August, Kootenai was recovering well. All the injuries have healed, even the half-dollar sized wound in the wing. Still, it will take some time to determine if Kootenai can be released back into the wild, or will remain at BOPNW among the 20 permanent teaching birds that help Janie educate students throughout Idaho and the U.S. about raptors and the environment. The most famous of these birds, Beauty, the bald eagle who got a prosthetic beak, is featured in Janie’s award-winning children’s book “Beauty and the Beak” (see story in W2018 Sandpoint Magazine).
The challenges Janie and the team faced during Kootenai’s rescue are among many ongoing challenges Janie faces in the rescue, treatment and reintroduction to the wild of some 150 raptors each year. During the Covid-19 pandemic, there are continuing needs for helping these magnificent birds. BOPNW receives no governmental funding to cover the costs of food, medicine, or treatment, so donations and volunteers are critical.
Learn more at www.birdsofpreynorthwest.org