BRAD DOKKEN: An old eagle’s final flight
Frank Walsh was looking out the window of his house on Oak Island watching the ice melt last Tuesday afternoon when he noticed a bald eagle at the edge of the icepack about 300 yards from shore.
And so the adventure began.
Walsh and his wife, Laura, own Walsh’s Bay Store Camp on the Lake of the Woods island, which sits on the U.S. side of the Minnesota-Ontario border. As with all of the island’s residents this time of year, the Walshes were between seasons, that time of year when there’s too much ice for a boat and too much open water for a snowmobile or ATV.
When you’re stuck on an island, it’s the time of year you spend a lot of time looking out the window waiting for the ice to melt.
Walsh said the eagle he spotted seemed to be fighting with a duck or some other bird.
“It was literally at the edge of the ice,” he said. “That’s where you tend to see most of them. There was some activity, but even with the binoculars, I wasn’t quite sure, but something was going on.”
That something, Walsh concluded, was a broken wing.
“It was trying to fly,” he said. “You hate to see it, but what are you going to do.”
An hour or two later, Walsh looked out the window again, and the eagle was gone.
“I know it didn’t miraculously fly away, but at least I didn’t have to watch it,” he said.
Walsh was still thinking about the eagle the next day when he pulled up to the dock with the airboat — his only mode of between-time transportation — after getting the mail at a nearby resort.
That’s when he saw the eagle in the weeds near shore.
“Now it’s in my yard, and I’m wondering, ‘What am I going to do?’” Walsh said.
It was about that time he called me wondering if I had any suggestions. Beth Siverhus, a wildlife rehabilitator from Warroad, Minn., was the first person who came to mind, so I gave him her number.
Siverhus told Walsh that if he could get the eagle to Young’s Bay on the Northwest Angle mainland, she’d drive up and take it from there.
Before he could even think about the logistics of taking a federally protected bird to the mainland by airboat for a trip from Minnesota through Canada and then back into Minnesota — the only option when going the 60 miles from the Northwest Angle to Warroad by road — Walsh had to catch the eagle.
He called Greg Ritter, a retired game warden and island neighbor, and plans were made to subdue the bird the next day because darkness was approaching.
In the meantime, Laura Walsh had rounded up a piece of Atlantic salmon to feed the eagle. But when Frank approached with the tasty morsel, the eagle ran off.
“I’m thinking, ‘This bird is going to be gone coming morning,’” he said. “It’s now or never.”
And so the chase ensued, Walsh wielding a large muskie net and the eagle doing everything it could to avoid the large muskie net. The eagle was crafty, Walsh says, but he managed to catch and corral the bird into a dog crate after about five minutes.
“One of my great fears was the eagle getting on the ice because I wasn’t going after it,” he said. “Luckily, it went down the bank where the snow was knee deep and just as soft as could be. When it hit that, the bird couldn’t even run.”
Walsh covered the pet cage with a blanket and put the eagle in a pole shed for the night. The next morning, the salmon he’d left in the cage was gone.
The next leg
Arrangements were made for Siverhus to pick up the eagle last Thursday night, and so Walsh and Ritter hauled the bird by airboat across six miles of ice and slush and open water to Young’s Bay.
Siverhus, with help from Jeff Birchem, a retired Minnesota conservation officer, had contacted Customs authorities that she’d be bringing the eagle across the border. She was waiting at Young’s Bay when Walsh and Ritter pulled up to shore with the airboat.
“I wish I would have gotten some pics of them coming across the bay at sunset in the airboat with the dog kennel in front being carefully guarded by (Ritter),” Siverhus said in an email. “Very cool.”
She said transporting the eagle from the Northwest Angle into Manitoba and then back into Minnesota in her Ford Escape was “a new and interesting experience.”
“The U.S. Customs officers were great,” Siverhus said. “They loved to see the eagle in the kennel in the back of the Escape.”
Siverhus said she knew as soon as she saw the eagle that it would have to be euthanized because of its nasty compound wing fracture, but she decided to send it to the Raptor Center anyway.
Marvin Windows had a plane going to the Twin Cities the next morning, and Siverhus arranged for a Raptor Center staffer to pick up the eagle at the airport.
“They have more gentle methods than I for euthanasia,” she said.
One old bird
Despite the unfortunate ending, the eagle’s story took a comforting twist later that afternoon when the Raptor Center contacted Siverhus.
The eagle had a leg band showing it was 32 years old and had been banded in Ontario in 1982 when it was too young to fly, presumably as a nestling.
As wild eagles go, they don’t get much older than that. Grand Forks raptor expert Tim Driscoll said 20 years is about the oldest he’s ever heard for an eagle in the wild, and I couldn’t find any records of eagles living that long unless they were in captivity.
How the eagle broke its wing also is a mystery. Lori Arent of the Raptor Center said in an email that X-rays found no evidence the eagle had been shot, and the bird tested negative for lead poisoning.
“We also don’t have any idea what caused the extensive wing damage,” Arent said. “There was no evidence of a classic territorial fight.”
Walsh and Siverhus said they were saddened by the eagle’s fate but took comfort in the long life it lived — and the remarkable journey that marked its last few hours of life.
“Capturing him at least prevented weeks more of suffering,” Siverhus said. “Frank fed him Alaskan salmon for the day or so he had him — not bad for a last supper.”
Walsh said he felt better after learning the eagle had lived as long as it did. It’s hard not to wonder, though, what happened to the eagle — and where it traveled during its 32 years on this earth.
“If this wouldn’t have happened, it probably would have died somewhere and no one would have even known,” Walsh said. “I guess 32 years kind of gives me some peace.”