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The Capture of Eagle #V31
By Peter Nye

Eagle V31
with Peter Nye and Kathy Michell
Photo: Gene Weinstein

February 5, 2003
1:58 am: Country music. I really don't like country music. That's probably why I have my clock-radio tuned to it, so I get up quickly and shut it off. I smell the coffee-maker already at work, thankfully. Fill the thermos, gather up the gear and on the road by 2:30. With the help of some metal and alt-rock (more to my liking), the 2 1/2 hour drive to the Mongaup Bald Eagle Preserve goes by quickly.

My eagle-technician, Kathy Michell, and I meet up at the spillway of Swinging Bridge Reservoir, haul all the gear out on the ice, place a fresh, new deer carcass and set up our rocket net. Back in the truck at our remote observation point on the dam by 0600, still a half-hour away from dawn. All must be in readiness before the first eagles leave the roost at first light, with no sign of humans, or forget eagles coming to our bait. The day is actually fairly mild, considering the sub-zero temperatures we've been having over the past couple of weeks.

The wind, however, worries me. It is breezy, with occasional strong gusts; gusts that could easily send our net sailing away from our target at the last second. This day, February 5th, is our second trapping day this year.

Kathy and I spent a long, 17-hour day on Martin Luther King Day trapping also, another very windy day where despite having dozens of crows feasting on our deer offering, not a single eagle ventured to the ground. Those kind of days can get to you, but are all part of the game: you've got to put in your time.

Today was to turn out to be different. 0630. Barely light, but two immature bald eagles come flapping up the valley from their roost, over the dam in front of our windshield, and on up the frozen reservoir. Today we will see a minimum of 15 immatures and 8 or so adult bald eagles. Many of the eagles in this popular wintering area are New York State birds I have banded as nestlings over the years, evident by the sky-blue leg band they wear, signifying them as "New Yorkers." We also regularly see birds from other states: purple-banded birds from Michigan, black-banded birds from Connecticut, and gold-banded birds from Massachusetts.

Our goal today is to avoid any of these birds: we want to capture an unbanded, adult bald eagle, hopefully from Canada, so that we can outfit it with one of our satellite radio transmitters to continue our research into migration pathways, origins and fidelity of our wintering eagles.

6:40 am: Three more eagles fly upriver and over the dam. At least we have eagles around today.

7:15 am: Crows arrive in numbers from their roost, and begin having breakfast on our deer; a good sign!

8:05 am: The sun is just beginning to break over the eastern ridge behind us now, and our eagle count is now up to at least 12 birds.

8:50 am:. An immature bald lands on the ice about 30 yards from the bait, and begins walking slowly toward it. This is very typical bald eagle behavior: rarely does a bald fly right down to a carcass and begin feeding. They are very wary and careful. Fortunately, the lure of crows devouring the morning offering is too great, and by 9 am, the first eagle is on the carcass and feeding.

9:12 am: By now, three immature balds are feeding (and squabbling) at the carcass.

9:30 am: Our coffee mugs and snacks are quickly put aside: a large adult has just come to the carcass and begun feeding. We're excited. Kathy is glued to the spotting scope affixed to her window, to determine if we should "fire" on this bird and when. Just as we are getting the remote firing box ready, she tells me: "blueband". Darn ! So we wait, and watch this large adult gorge herself on our offering. Notat all bad, as she is sure to attract attention from the other resident birds. Over the next 45 minutes, up to 7 immatures and 3 adults visit and fight over the carcass, jumping, flapping and flying at each other, talons outstretched, in an attempt to dominate the food. Too many eagles and too scattered around to safely shoot the net. So we wait, and watch.Kathy has determined that a small adult, one of the birds on the carcass, is unbanded and a good target. We continue watching, and waiting for our opportunity.

Photos of the capture process from a previous year.
Eagles at deer carcass
Rocket net
Deployed! Was an eagle captured?

10:40 am: Four birds on the carcass now, two immies and two adults, our "small" adult among them. Kathy holds the radio-controlled firing box out her window and awaits my command, for the moment when all birds are centered on the bait and engrossed in their feeding. "Pull", I say, and Kathy pulls the toggle switch down to the firing position. A loud bang and lots of smoke: too much to see through and besides, we need to get over to the set ASAP. The truck is already lurching, somewhat wildly across the dam. We skid to a stop just above the spillway, bolt out and slide down an ice-covered chute used to drop deer carcasses down to the spillway. This is a great spot for a broken arm or leg, but the excitement predominates and we are soon running across the spillway toward our now outstretched net and the four eagles caught safely underneath. Success! With only two of us, the removal takes awhile, but goes smoothly. The eagles are extracted and crated up one by one for processing. Our "small" adult, now known as V31 with satellite transmitter #12359, indeed turns out to be unbanded and a male.

The other adult, the one Kathy originally identified as a blue-banded bird (and still feeding!), turned out to be F70, an eagle I banded as a nestling at one of our New York nests about 40 miles away in 1998. Since this is a female and just approaching 5 years old and sexual maturity, we hope the radio transmitter we placed on her will lead us to a new nest later this spring.

By 1600 all eagles had been processed and released, net repacked, gear removed and loaded back in the truck, and we head home, Kathy to hers and me to mine. A long day, but happily, a successful one. You don't mind putting in such hours when things work out the way you want. V31 roosted right in the Mongaup River roost that night, just below the dam and along with all the other eagles on the area.

How long will he stay at the Mongaup? Where will he go come spring? I'm as anxious to find out as you are!

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