KLUKWAN — The little bald eagles didn’t even have proper names or fully grown feathers. Orphaned as an eaglet and a juvenile, each took only the labels of the places rescuers found them — “Palmer” and “Yakutat” — and received limited human contact so they could return to the wild.
On Saturday, it was time for staff members from Anchorage’s Bird Treatment and Learning Center to help them do just that, in the midst of what’s known as the largest annual congregation of eagles in the country as celebrated by the Bald Eagle Festival in Haines.
After numerous flight delays and cancellations, a small weather window opened just long enough for Bird TLC staff to land in Haines with their two, now rehabilitated juvenile bald eagles.
Within a few hours, the raptors were released into Southeast’s wilds — a bittersweet moment for Katie Thorman, Bird TLC’s rehabilitation assistant, and Laura Atwood, the center’s executive director, who transported the eagles from Anchorage to Haines. They were a part of a dedicated team of staff and volunteers that helped care for the eagles this summer, including Karen Higgs, Bird TLC’s avian care director.
Atwood and Thorman stood near the release boxes Saturday and watched alongside onlookers as each bird took hesitant steps into the snow. Shortly after, the eagles soared confidently over the Chilkat River’s powder blue waters.
Currently, Bird TLC does not have any staff or volunteers that are federally permitted to band eagles so these birds will not be tracked.
With attention cast upward to the newly freed birds, Atwood and Thorman became emotional and embraced next to the empty boxes.
“They always say you can’t get attached ... and usually I don’t,” Thorman said. “Most of the time with an eagle release, it’s like, ‘Good luck, hope I never see you again.’ Caring for something since it was an infant, it’s different.”
The eagles were just months old when they were brought to Bird TLC, an Anchorage-based nonprofit operating on private donations that provides medical and rehabilitation treatment to sick and injured birds and educational programing on wild birds and their habitats.
One of the juvenile eagles was found on the ground in Palmer. When the bird got to the treatment center in August, it was acting subdued, with low body weight and what appeared to be an injured wing.
Another eagle estimated to be slightly younger –– about a month old when found –– was discovered by a resident on the side of the road with no nest or parents in Yakutat, a small community located on the northern end of the Inside Passage. U.S. Forest Service staff helped care for the eaglet until it was transported to Bird TLC on July 4.
“She was such like a helpless ... little rubber chicken of a thing,” Thorman said of the eaglet found in Yakutat.
Without rehabilitation both birds would likely have died, she said.
Due to the young ages of the eagles, strict protocols were put in place by Bird TLC to ensure they didn’t imprint on humans or become habituated –– changes that would have prevented them from being released back into the wild. Part of this process also included staff wearing a paper eagle mask during feedings.
The process was also complicated by precautions due to a new strain of avian influenza that led to the deaths of millions of birds across the country in recent months.
But taking in the young raptors was something Atwood felt a responsibility to do: Most of the injuries they see in birds admitted to the center are human-caused.
“We have a sense of stewardship and responsibility to pay this back and do what we can for any individual bird to get them back out into the wild and give them that second chance,” she said.
Atwood and Thorman transported the eagles in large pet carriers from Anchorage to Haines, drawing attention from travelers at every leg of their trip, in addition to excited customer service agents at Alaska Airlines and Alaska Seaplanes.
Their goal was to release the eagles during Southeast’s Alaska Bald Eagle Festival –– a dayslong event that coincides with the annual congregation of bald eagles along the shores of the Chilkat River.
The two young eagles were released near an abundance of resources: a late fall salmon run, plenty of protected perches and thousands of adult bald eagles to learn from.
Every year from the end of October through November, around 3,000 to 4,000 bald eagles can gather at the Chilkat River to feed on salmon in the river’s unfrozen waters.
Takshanuk Watershed Council performs a daily count once a week during this busy season, said Stacie Evans, the council’s science director. The highest count on record was 2,406 eagles spotted in one day, she said.
This year’s numbers were significantly lower than previous daily averages from around 1,000 to 1,500 eagles, she said. This year’s peak number was 418 eagles, counted on Oct. 21. Evans says the counts don’t correlate to bald eagle population size but rather salmon runs.
Staff at the American Bald Eagle Foundation, a nonprofit in Haines that hosts the festival, as well as year-round educational programming, stewardship and conservation efforts for bald eagles and their habitat, theorize shifting temperatures could be playing a role in the dwindling eagle counts.
“The thing that was special about this place was that the water didn’t freeze,” said Josh Sanko, animal curator at ABEF. “But if the water is not freezing in a lot of other places, it’s not as important that those birds congregate there so there’s more places they can go and find food.”
On Saturday, a group of around 40 people –– both local and out-of-state –– gathered on the banks of the river in Klukwan, a Tlingit village located about 22 miles northwest of Haines, to watch the releases.
Village leaders in Klukwan opened their Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage Center and Bald Eagle Preserve Visitor Center to festival attendees, in addition to allowing the release to happen on their land.
Auctions were held before the releases to raise money for the American Bald Eagle Foundation to give two attendees an opportunity to open the release doors.
Betty Champlin, who moved with her sister to Anchorage from the Lower 48 in August, won the auction to open the release box for the Palmer eagle.
The sisters have been busy crossing items off of their bucket lists, including seeing the northern lights, but seeing the bald eagles was Champlin’s top goal.
“I had seen a picture in Anchorage several years ago of all these eagles on a beach and that just gave me chills and that’s what I wanted to do, so we came here.”
On Saturday, Champlin tiptoed to the edge of the release box after lifting the wooden door and peeked around its corner to see the eagle just as it was emerging. The raptor took flight and headed for the river.