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Orphan of the storm

An injured eaglet returns to the sky—with a little help from her friends


NARROWSBURG, NY — The story of D34 began in early April when she hatched as one of three siblings to Narrowsburg’s resident pair. Two winters ago, her parents built their nest in the river valley hamlet opposite the viewing deck, making them probably the most watched bald eagles in the state. D34 and her siblings were the result of the second successful nesting of this new eagle couple.

Within only eight weeks, they were nearly adult size, though not yet capable of flight. But on June 7, 2008, despite the fact that the Narrowsburg pair built a very solid nest and were excellent parents, something went wrong. A sudden storm came through valley and the accompanying winds swept the youngest of the eaglets from the nest. Frightened and stunned, she remained at the base of the nest tree until she was discovered by Linda Peters. Linda and her husband, Colin, have been very protective of the pair nesting on their property. Colin called me immediately to assess the situation.

Normally an eaglet of her size would be cared for on the ground by the parents, and no intervention would be required. However, in this case, although the eaglet appeared to be uninjured, the residential location would have made it difficult for the adults to tend to her. I called Peter Nye, the leader of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Endangered Species Unit. After some deliberation, the decision was made to climb the tree and put her back in the nest. Pete would drive from Albany the next morning and meet my son Tom and me at 7:00 a.m.

The eaglet had survived the night and was easily cornered and captured by the team. While I held her, Nye fitted her with a bright blue leg band, D34; she now had a name. He also attached a small VHF transmitter backpack so that her movements could be followed. Tom worked on repairing the utility line normally left in the nest tree for pulling up climbing equipment, which had frayed and broken. Nye had to free climb the 120-foot tree and replace the rigging so that D34 could be hoisted up to him at the nest in a bright orange sack. D34 would continue growing and exercising her wings in the safety of the nest.

But less than a month later, on July 5th, the night of the Narrowsburg fireworks, D34 apparently crashed into something. The next morning, Joan and Don Holbert informed me that there was an eagle on the ground near their home on the Flats. I called John Brennan, the DEC technician with the Delaware River Eagle Study, to assist in the capture. As we approached her, a backpack became visible, and we realized that it was D34 on the ground. Now a partially fledged bird, she flew about 100 yards before resting. Her left leg hung limply, indicating that it was broken.

Unless captured, she would die a slow death of starvation. John sprinted after her several times as she grew increasingly tired. We finally cornered her in Creamer’s driveway, where I grabbed her in front of an ever-growing audience.

The next stop was the Delaware Valley Raptor Center. I took D34 to Milford, PA, where Bill Streeter took x-rays and assessed her condition. D34 was very cooperative, and we managed to get some clear films showing a mid-shaft femur fracture that would take surgery to repair. We decided the best vet for the job was Ed Becker. Though he was on vacation in Lake George, he said the surgery should be done right away and returned to Albany, his home base, to perform it. John Brennan and Glenn Hewitt took D34 to Albany on Monday morning. Surgery went well, and she received both internal and external pins. After five weeks, external pins were removed and she was released at the island near the nest on August 13.

But the struggle was not quite over. Much to our dismay, D34’s parents no longer recognized her as their own, nor would she call to them. Without the parental assistance, her chance of surviving the first critical year would be diminished. So John and I assisted D34 with handouts of fish and roadkill. She remained close to Narrowsburg through the fall, and as she grew stronger, traveled back and forth to the Ten Mile River.

Two weeks ago she traveled to the Mongaup Falls overwintering eagle sanctuary, where she has been observed flying strongly in the company of other eagles, and more recently was observed again at Ten Mile River. Thanks to a lot of caring people, D34 is back in the sky, and you may be lucky enough to see this very special eagle this winter—maybe even at EagleFest this weekend—and for many more.

(Kathy Michell (aka the Tusten Town Clerk) is a wildlife biologist who has worked as an eagle specialist for the DEC the past 10 winters.)

Contributed photo by Kathy Michell
Eaglet D34 was found on the ground on the Flats in Narrowsburg, NY in June of 2008 after being blown out of her nest in a storm. (Click for larger version)
Contributed photo by Kathy Michell
D34 is held preparatory to placement of a transmitter and return to her nest. The large size of the young bird is apparent in comparison to the hands. Although at about eight weeks old her body was already virtually full sized, her wings were still one or two weeks short of being able to fly. (Click for larger version)
Contributed photo by Kathy Michell
D34 perches on a branch on an island in the Delaware River where she had been released after recovering from surgery for a broken leg. (Click for larger version)