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Anything outdoors!  Tornadoes, eagles, blizzards, or auroras.  If it is in the sky, running through the woods or swimming in the water, I'm there!


Sunday, December 25, 2011


First off, I hunt deer. I love hunting deer. I love venison.

HOWEVER...deer hunters need to bury or cover gut piles or carcasses after the kill! Remember it only takes a piece of lead the size of a pencil tip to kill a bald eagle.

So today, Christmas Eve 2011 I decided to kayak down the Mississippi River from Snuffy's Landing near Becker, MN to Montissippi Park in Monticello, MN. Usually takes me about an hour and forty minutes to go the 8 miles or so. I shot a lot of video along the way and was nearing a group of small islands just upstream from the Monticello nuke plant which usually holds a lot of waterfowl. Yup, today was no different. Lots of giant Canada geese and trumpeter swans. The west bank of the river has a long stretch of ice which extends out a few hundred feet the birds rest on. As I got to the end of the ice shelf and was preparing to line myself up to navigate some more riffles, I noticed a mature bald eagle take flight from near the river bank. Nothing out of the ordinary for this area. Eagles are very abundant along this stretch of the Upper Mississippi with it's wild and scenic designation.

As I turned the kayak sideways to get some video of the eagle in flight, I spotted another eagle standing on the ice next to the water. Again, nothing out of the ordinary. However, instead of taking flight to follow it's mate (assuming), the eagle jumped up onto the shore and went into some tall canary grass. It spread it's wings totally out and both sides were symmetrical so it did not appear a wing injury was present. I immediately called Melinda and asked her to call either the local conservation officer or the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine. Well, she couldn't reach the game warden but she was able to leave a message at the raptor center and within minutes I got a call from them letting me know they had dispatched a capture volunteer from Becker, MN who would restrain and transport the bird. The other issue was the bird was on property owned by Xcel Energy and with the location being a nuclear facility, security was going to be an issue. The Raptor Center contacted the Wright County Sheriff's Office who dispatched a deputy to assist (3 actually ended showing up). The Raptor Center called back and said the capture team was about 45 minutes out and they would call me for the exact location as where to meet us. As I neared my take out point, the team from the Raptor Center called and we coordinated where to meet myself and the deputies for the security escort.

I met the deputies at the spot along county road 75 I thought would have the easiest access to the bird and we hiked in. It only took me a few minutes to locate the eagle who was perched on a gnarled basswood stump about 2 feet off the ground almost exactly where I had seem him jump up the bank. As we waited the eagle spooked and flew about 75 yards out onto the ice shelf and landed on a giant granite boulder out in the river surrounded by ice. He was obviously struggling but I was surprised he was able to fly at all. As we waited to see what his next move was, I noticed three large areas of blood on the ice about 20 or so feet apart with a lot of eagle tracks on the spots right in front of us. It didn't look like a kill as there was not any fur or fins in the blood. Odd. However, there was a small stain of green bile infested eagle poop which is a tell-tale sign of lead poisoning. I pointed this out to the deputies and suggested we go back to our vehicles and wait for the Raptor Center team.

Once the team arrived, I told them where the eagle was currently located and I was still confident something was very wrong with it. I offered to portage my yak back up the river to see if I could get the eagle to fly back to shore. They agreed so the deputies took them back through the woods to the river and I shouldered the 51 lb yak upstream of the eagle to find a suitable spot to launch onto the ice shelf. Getting back into open water was tough. I never trust river ice so I got into the yak, fitted the skirt and used my hands to scoot back to the open water. After a little difficulty, I finally crossed the 50 feet or so to the point where I did break through and was able to push-pole myself with the paddle the last 20 feet to open water. The current is fast in this stretch so I quickly scanned the shore to find exactly where the capture team was. I ended up taking three runs at the edge of the ice shelf in an attempt to get the eagle to fly back to shore. The third attempt worked and the bird took to the air about 3 feet off the ice and came to a semi-controlled landing on the shore just upstream from the team. They made an attempt to approach the eagle but it flew a few hundred feet up the shore then landed in not so majestic fashion. This scenario played out 2 more times. I tried to follow the edge of the ice shelf and paddle upstream but wasn't having much luck to so I found an eddy and parked myself to watch them attempt to corral the eagle.

The Raptor Center team's strategy was to tire the eagle out so they could capture it in a large fishing landing net and prep it for transport. On the forth attempt to approach the eagle, it decided to fly to the other side of the river. About half way across it was evident it was not going to make it. Into the water it went. As most of you know, I spend A LOT of time out photographing eagles. I have seen them stand and bathe in the water as ice is forming in front of our home. They are quite water resistant under normal circumstances but this was not normal. This bird was obviously weak. The adrenaline kicked in and I paddled against the current using the strongest strokes I could pushing against the foot pegs and thigh braces in the yak for extra leverage. I remember thinking "Please God. Please don't let it end like this." The last thing I wanted was for the bird to drown without a chance for the Raptor Center to at least try to help him.

What seemed liked minutes was most likely only one as I closed the distance between myself and the eagle. Between the swift current and my paddling efforts, I pulled up next to the bird. He was able to keep his head above the water and was attempting to "swim" using a flight-like motion. This went on for a minute as I ran every scenario through my head I could think of as how to help this guy and not let the ice-filled 32° water kill him from shock.

Then the amazing part began to happen. We have all seen pictures and heard stories of how wild animals will let their guard down as a last minute desperation effort to live. Eagles have an unbelievable will to live. This guy was no different.

As the current rushed us downstream, I held the eagle against the side of the yak with my paddle as I looked for an area with slower water near an island where I could figure out my next move. The idea of a talon with over 125 lbs of force per square inch digging into my hand or arm didn't sound like much fun.

The he did it. My kayak, a Current Designs Breeze, it fitted with a lot of shock cord right in front of the cockpit. The eagle grabbed a cord with it's beak and grabbed another with his left talon and tried to pull himself up onto the bow of the kayak! At this time I reached into the water with my right hand and gave him a boost. Within seconds he was perched on the bow less than 2 feet away with his back turned! At this point I grabbed my paddle and began to steer us though a shallow area filled with riffles and boulders. I was amazed at how well he was able to keep his balance! As we rounded the north side of the island, I lost view of the rescue team and the deputies. Also about this time, I also realized I had left my cell phone in the truck. No communication. Great.

There was no way I could paddle back upstream to the last point I had seen the rescue team. I decided I had two options. Make it to the nuke plant and risk being arrested in the name of trying to save the eagle or paddle the mile or so to Montisippi Park. On my earlier run through here, I had seen several fisherman and figured one would still be there with a cell phone who could call Wright County for me and relay info to the deputies and rescue team. The eagle seemed content so Montissippi it was.

About this time the eagle (who had been extending his wings to dry them), decided he was rested and was going to take another run at the shore. He made it about 5 feet. Back to shadowing him in the water until once again he decided the kayak was a better option as he tried to pull himself back up onto the bow. With a little assistance from me he hopped up but this time ended up right on top of my spray skirt. I was a little nervous about having those talons within millimeters of my bare skin but the eagle had this strange sense of calm. He would turn his head, cock it, then look at me as to say "let's do this". I began to paddle harder while scanning the shore in hopes of locating a fisherman. Christmas Eve, late afternoon.....no luck.

As I rounded the final bend before my take out spot. I started to run contingency plans through my head. I decided the only option would be to wrap the eagle up in my hoodie and walk the mile and a half or so up to country road 75 if no one was still around. Then I saw one, then two, then three vehicles in the parking lot at the access. I was worried about spooking the eagle if I had to shout to the fisherman for help so I started having a conversation with him. He seemed to tolerate it, cocking his head if I would whistle. I was still confident this was going to work out.

When I approached the shore, the look on the faces of the stunned fisherman is something I will never forget. The only thing I can compare it to is the look of disbelief on the faces of tornado victims right after the storm passes: "This can't be happening!". Three guys fishing and one guy watching. I hollered if anyone had a cell phone and asked if they would call 911 to Wright County dispatch and have one of the deputies who responded to the original call alert the rescue team I was in possession of the eagle and to come to the Montissippi access point. Mr. Bruce Iving made the call. (Thanks Bruce for helping out.) Wright county said they would send a deputy. As we waited, I asked if anyone had a tarp or an old blanket as now the eagle had hopped up on the bow again and was facing me. He still had this calm about him and I was not afraid he was going to lunge at me with his beak or talons. I noticed he had some type of trauma to his chest and was wheezing somewhat. The wound sure looked like it could have been from a small caliber rile. Had he been shot??? Bruce grabbed an old blanket from his truck. I gave him some basic instructions on how to handle the eagle as I was confident he would try to jump to the shore once I got close. About this time Mr. Ken Knutson also came down the access. He was willing to help out and readied himself with Bruce. It suddenly dawned on me no one was going to believe this story without photo proof. In the storm chasing world the rule is: "If you don't have photo or video proof, it didn't happen." One of guys who was fishing took a pic with his phone (sorry I didn't get the name) and texted it to me. Ken snapped a few picks too.

So it was now or never. I pointed the yak towards the shore and just as expected the eagle jumped. Bruce was ready and got control of the eagle's legs while Ken helped get it wrapped up safely in the blanket. These guys did an awesome job! About now the deputy showed up and let us know the other three had gone off shift and no one had the phone number for the rescue team (except for me...on my cell phone, about 3-4 miles away). Ken said he would hold the eagle as the deputy gave me a ride back to my truck. When we got there, the people from the Raptor Center were just getting back to their van. Perfect timing.

We all headed back to the park and met the guys and eagle. The Raptor Center people had Ken and Bruce quickly load the eagle into a plastic pet crate (still wrapped safely in the blanket) and off to the University of Minnesota down in St. Paul they went. I briefed the guys on how we could check on the eagle by calling the Raptor Center and to be sure to give their phone numbers to me.

I loaded the yak onto my truck and again thanked everyone for helping out. I really had hope for this eagle. I knew if his biggest issue was a small caliber gunshot wound, his prognosis for at least survival if not a full recovery would be be good. I called Melinda and told her to check her text messages in a minute as I knew she would never believe the story. I forwarded her the photo and headed for home, looking forward to Christmas Eve activities with my family.

Ken with the eagle while waiting for the Raptor Center people to arrive.

During dinner, I told them this story and expressed my confidence the Raptor Center would be able to help him. My mom is a HUGE eagle fan which started with my photography over the years, progressed to the eagle nesting cams, and moved on to following the rehab eagles which are released back into the wild and tracked via GPS. Once again, her semi-crazy son had an experience almost too weird to be true. "An eagle rode a couple of miles on the bow of your kayak? Yeah, riiiiiiiggggggghhhhtttt."

Then the call came. It was from the Raptor Center team. One of the initial tests they do on a bird which is delivered to them is to run a toxicology test to check for lead levels. This guy tested positive. My initial hunch about the green bile was correct. She said his level was "very high". I have been in this game long enough to know what that meant. He couldn't be treated. The eagle would be immediately euthanized. My heart sank.

With all the time I spend in the field in pursuit of bald eagles, I know this happens. Last year my good friend David Drufke and his wife, Kristen, had the same thing occur. Here is their story. It doesn't make it any easier. Much like being one of the first to arrive after a tornado strikes, the overwhelming feeling of sorrow and helplessness ensues....but it needs to be kept in perspective. This eagle was going to die regardless. He was terminal. All we did was keep him from dying a slow, painful death. I thought of the other eagle I had seen with him. Most likely it was a female and his mate based on the size difference. Eagle pairs have an incredibly strong bond caring for each other much like human couples. Then it dawned on me what the blood spots were I have seen back on the ice shelf earlier. That was food she had brought for him since he was took weak to hunt. Faithful to the end. We could all use a lesson in compassion for each other from this. Melinda and the kids also share my love for eagles. It was sad. Very sad. But as Ken stated in a text to me, "God put us all there for a reason tonight". I believe that.

In wrapping this saga up, I once again PLEAD for sportsmen to be responsible with the use of lead shot, lead slugs, lead bullets and fishing weights. It only takes a piece of lead the size of the tip of a pencil to kill one of these majestic birds. Bury or cover up those deer gut piles and carcasses. Use non-toxic products! They are out there. It's the responsible thing to do. I can't think of anyone who doesn't enjoy the sight of an eagle soaring overhead. Well, there is one less chance to see an eagle in flight after tonight.


Bren said...

Wow! That was an amazing story and rescue!

Superdupersiep said...

You are one amazing guy! Huge pity the eagle didn't make it but I'm happy he was saved from more suffering! Amazing story! Well done, sir!

Anonymous said...

Thank-you for all your of efforts and may you always be blessed on the river of life.

Jeremy Ludin said...

Great read, Bill. As a fellow bald eagle lover, I highly commend your efforts put forth. This is definitely a heart breaking story, but to know people like you are out there trying to make a difference is very comforting. Great job man!

Katia said...

This made me seriously cry.
But that's amazing, and sad.
I hope hunters will be more responsible, because eagles and other birds of prey are magnificent creatures.

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