VIDEO BY JOEY HOLLEMAN
Released from the arms of his human helpers, a rehabilitated bald eagle Monday pumped his powerful wings a couple of times to propel his large frame into the air, took a quick right turn over a Lake Murray cove and headed for the nearest large trees.
There he perched on a limb for about five minutes, probably wondering what had just happened. Then he took off again, lighting in another limb one cove farther north. The bird had been given the last-minute nickname of Patriot because he was released on the Veterans Day holiday, but Freedom would have been equally apropos.
After six months in captivity, the eagle was back in the wild for the first time since he arrived at Riverbanks Zoo in early June, suffering large puncture wounds in his side and feet. A resident in the area near the Dorn V.A. Medical Center found the injured eagle and brought it to the zoo’s raptor center. Zoo veterinarian Keith Benson deduced the bird had been injured in a turf battle with another eagle.
Based on his white head feathers with only a few brown flecks, the injured eagle was an otherwise healthy male in the 3- to 4-year range, with a body about two feet tall and wingspan in the range of five to six feet. He had the powerful talons and menacing beak that earn bald eagles a spot near the top of the food chain.
Benson and his staff treated the injuries, and the bird was on the mend quickly. In August, he was transported to the Carolina Raptor Center in Charlotte, where he could regain flight strength in the center’s large cages. The center’s staff deemed the eagle healthy enough to release to the wild last week.
The most convenient date for the trip down I-77 to the eagle’s home territory happened to fall on the Veterans Day Monday holiday. Releasing a rehabilitated national symbol on a patriotic holiday offered the added plus of giving the zoo’s BB&T Clinic for Raptors and Endangered Species and the Carolina Raptor Center a blast of publicity.
Riverbanks staffers opted not to do the release at the zoo because at least two nesting pairs hang out nearby on the islands where the Saluda and Broad rivers converge. The last thing this bird needed was another turf fight.
Bald eagles are common sights these days on Lake Murray, which has plenty of suitable habitat along its 650 miles of shoreline. A cove near the dam on the Irmo side was chosen in part because zoo veterinary tech Jeanna Lineberger walks her dog in the area and never had seen a bald eagle there. But only moments before the release, another bald eagle soared over the middle of the cove.
Lineberger could only shake her head and laugh. Maybe it’ll work out fine, she said. That might have been a female eagle looking for a mate.