July 10, 2013 —
Anyone who learned how to fly remembers their first solo flight. In a light, primary training aircraft without 170 pounds of instructor (“official” weight, mileage may vary), the aircraft seemingly leaped into the air. For most people, it was an exhilarating experience, and maybe you left the traditional shirt tail with your name and solo date on the flight school office wall.
For young bald eagles that are now as large as an adult, their first solo is imminent, and with a bit more risk factor than a first-time pilot who follows a simple square traffic pattern around the runway.
Young eagles have to “slip the surly bonds of earth” not on earth but from 90 feet or higher from their nest high up in a tree. As a rule, their fledge flight starts from a limb near the nest, and with spread wings and a push, they achieve flight (usually). Sometimes, young eagles are found halfway down the tree on a limb right next to the trunk on what may have been a slip or an aborted flight. Usually that first flight results in a successful landing on a nearby tree or a slightly less controlled landing into a bush, some pine boughs, or some other awkward landing spot. Most eagles fledge successfully, but a few are injured or killed.
If you see a young eagle on the ground, it may have simply landed there to rest. Eagles are often on the ground near water to bathe, to rest, or to forage for prey. Fledglings sometimes grab small objects such as sticks and will start playing or pouncing on that object. I watched one young eagle wade in the river next to a gravel bar and come up with a small eel, likely its first successful prey capture.
Injured eagles may be limping or dragging a wing; observe from a distance for a time, and if it seems to be in distress, you can call the Delaware Valley Raptor Center at 570/296-6025. Most of these fledglings that find themselves in awkward situations will extricate themselves and fly off. To coin a phrase sometimes heard in aviation circles, “any landing you can walk away (or fly) from is a good landing.”