Injured eagle returns to wild

An old bald eagle with a broken hip takes to the skies after his release by the Center for Birds of Prey.

AWENDAW — There's a warrior of an old bald eagle flying over the Lowcountry, with a little bit of a giddyup.

He'll get along fine on his own, rehab workers said, but he might not have a choice because the state Department of Natural Resources is cutting back on its annual eagle count and monitoring. The two staffers who handled a lot of that work have retired and budget cuts mean the positions can't be refilled now.

Meanwhile, the bald eagle has been removed from the federal Endangered Species list following a remarkable comeback.

The bird was found a few weeks ago on a levee in the Santee Coastal Reserve, coated with so much pluff mud he couldn't fly. He was taken to the Center for Birds of Prey where an X-ray revealed an old pelvis fracture. The 26-year-old raptor had been flying with a broken hip, the sort of injury that could cripple an old man or ground an old bird.

When S.C. biologist Charlotte Hope was brought to see him, she knew exactly who he was. She had been watching him for a quarter-century, training binoculars on his leg to find the band that DNR biologists put on when he was a nestling in 1983. He seemed to know who she was, too.

"He immediately took that banded leg and tucked it up in his feathers," she said. Center staff cleaned him up and found no new injuries, so they worked with him and then released him. He flew away with his tail hitched to one side to compensate for the broken hip.

"This is an experienced bird. In the wild 26 years is a long time for an eagle," said Jim Elliott, center executive director. Just surviving that long, and coping with the pelvic injury, "this guy has done a lot of things right. He deserved another chance to go. We hope he'll make it another decade."

The eagle flies off as a three-decade-old state program closes that monitored nests and made annual breeding pair counts. The work of biologist Tom Murphy, who first banded this eagle, and others has been praised as a model used by other endangered species recovery groups.

DNR is turning over much of the eagle program to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. An annual count done by plane will be cut back to a count done once every five years, and it will be a sample count rather than an overall population survey, paid for by the service and staffed by both federal and state wildlife managers, said Laurel Barnhill, DNR bird conservation coordinator.

DNR will continue to list nest locations but will rely on sightings by staff and the public, she said. It's planned to run from an interactive online site. Barnhill called the program cutback an indication that the endangered species act works.

"It's a testament of change because the eagle has rebounded," she said.

Some 250 breeding pairs of bald eagles were counted in South Carolina this year, up from 13 pairs three decades ago when the endangered species act went into effect. The nesting numbers still climb modestly year to year after a decade of huge, heartening growth for the iconic species that had been all but wiped out in the lower 48 states.

Bald eagles can live nearly as long as people in captivity, but in the wild the usual lifespan is five to 10 years. The eagle re-released by the Center for Birds of Prey was banded as a nestling in the Naval Weapons Station in Goose Creek. Hope first spotted him as an adult, one of a breeding pair in the Santee nest near Garris Landing at Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge in 1993. She tracked his return every year until 2005.

"Through the years I learned where his perch trees are," she said. Getting a sharp focus on a tiny band on the leg of a spooky eagle isn't easy, but this eagle gave her opportunities. "He's pretty tolerant of people." In 2005, with the nest tree dead, the eagle abruptly left. "Somehow they have this sixth sense about when a tree is going to fall."

She thinks he relocated to Bull's Island out in the refuge, but on the remote wilderness island biologists could never get near enough to be sure. The next time she saw him was in the center clinic.

"I feel he went into another (nesting pair's) territory and got his butt kicked," Hope said. She was glad to finally get a look up close, and is happy to see him back in the wild.

She forms a personal attachment to birds she has seen year to year. She even has a recurring dream about grabbing an eagle by the legs in the wild to read the band.

Despite the cutback of the monitoring program, she plans to keep tracking nests that are in jeopardy because of development in the habitat.

"It's hard, after you do something for 22 years, to let go of it," she said. "They are recovering. We'll just have to see if these eagles can take care of themselves."