Birds of Prey staff take to the air in pursuit of errant eagle
AWENDAW — OK, so just how do you chase down a runaway bald eagle?
Kite on site
AWENDAW — A rare swallow-tailed kite, maybe the most graceful bird in the air, is now in residence and on display at the Center for Birds of Prey.
The raptor glides for miles without flicking a wing, and can glide to a stop in midair. It’s so keenly adapted to flight it almost never touches the ground. It’s so mobile that after years of sighting reports, researchers still don’t know enough about how many there are to know whether it’s an endangered species.
It’s a flagship species at the center, whose staff tracks sighting reports in the Lowcountry.
Staff say the newly acquired kite, a captive-bred that can’t survive in the wild, might eventually take part in flight demonstrations.
If you go
What: One-hour guided tours of raptors and flight demonstrations.
Where: The Center for Birds of Prey, 4872 Seewee Road, Awendaw.
When: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Also: “Wild at Wingswood” annual fundraiser picnic event. Food, music, flight demonstrations. Sunday, 1-5 p.m. Tickets, $45 adults, $12 children 7-17 years old; younger are free.
More information: www.thecenterforbirdsofprey.org or 843-971-7474.
At the Center for Birds of Prey, they know the drill. One of their demonstration flight eagles took off during a recent Friday outing, spooked, maybe, by vultures circling overhead.
The eagle, an impaired bird that normally won’t go above tree tops, flew up with the vultures, caught the thermal they were in and went for a soar. As trainers tried to call it back, the symbol of American freedom disappeared over the trees.
Go for it, you think. But no. This eagle has a neurological balance problem that leaves it walking in a wobble. It lacks that pinpoint accuracy it needs to dive and talon fish. It couldn’t survive in the wild.
Center staff grabbed the antenna and hopped in the car in pursuit of the radio-collared bird. At the Wando River they lost the signal as they peered across the wide waters.
Staff know there’s a risk of a runaway bird every time they take one out, and “it puts a burden on us,” said husbandry coordinator Audrey Poplin.
A spooked bird does flee every now and then. Usually, though, the bird doesn’t go far.
But an eagle is capable of flying at highway speed, and in the wild ranges some 50 miles in a day.
“The bird was virtually lost,” said center director Jim Elliott.
There was only one more option: an airplane.
Sam Trost, a flight instructor at Mount Pleasant Airport, volunteered. Even for a veteran pilot, the job “was unique, to say the least. But it was kind of cool,” he said.
It was Sunday morning before they could get borrowed aircraft antennas in place and launch.
They circled the Marion-Moultrie lakes without success, looking for eagle hunting grounds. They were headed back when they picked up a signal over the Charleston peninsula and vectored in on Johns Island. Poplin, down in a pursuit car, spotted the eagle at Trophy Lakes, in among other eagles. It spooked again, to a yard pond in a nearby subdivision. When they caught up, the eagle was miserable and wary, with a badly bruised leg, soaking wet and muddy from a botched landing. The balance, you know.
Poplin lured it back by tossing it dead chicks.
“I finally lunged and wrangled her,” Poplin said. Safe and sound, the bird is being rehabbed in the center’s medical clinic. It might eventually return to display flights, with the staff much more cautious about what’s out there when deciding whether to take it out.
“Now that I know she has it in her,” Poplin said.
Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on Twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.