Around the Saratoga Passage in 80 days
Shot through the wing by an as yet unidentified poacher, but rescued by ANIMALS 24-7, Elvis the Eagle on July 10, 2018 returned to the air after 80 days of rehabilitation.
The release, by ANIMALS 24-7 photographer and social media editor Beth Clifton, was directed by Progressive Animal Welfare Society wildlife naturalist Jeff Brown and witnessed by three visiting New Zealanders who helped to capture the event on video and in snapshots.
Brown brought Elvis back to Hidden Beach, here alongside the Saratoga Passage on Whidbey Island, Washington, after Elvis had spent just over two months at the PAWS wildlife rehabilitation center in Lynnwood, on the mainland.
Preparing for takeoff
Before the release, Brown carefully surveyed the habitat to ensure there were no active eagles’ nests nearby, and no already alerted mobs of crows ready to harass Elvis during his first flights after returning to nature.
Wanting Elvis to start into a headwind, so as to rise into the air more easily, Brown checked the breeze as cautiously as a light plane pilot preparing for takeoff.
All bystanders were positioned and briefed on what to do to avoid frightening Elvis. A variety of cameras were set up. Then, at Brown’s signal, Beth opened the transport cage and hurried behind it, so that Elvis would not see her.
Elvis varied the script
Elvis was expected to rush out of the cage, spread his wings, and soar up to perch in a nearby tree. That is what rehabilitated eagles usually do.
Instead, Elvis rushed out of the cage, made a right turn, and hopped up on a driftwood log in the nearest deep shade to do his own habitat survey. He could see where he had been shot, about a quarter mile north. He could see all of us. He could see the entire expanse of beach, along which he had been carried in a big dog crate at high tide when rescued. He could see nine crows foraging on the mud flats between himself and the water.
Cocking his head this way and that, Elvis took a few experimental hops before finally flying into a tree about 100 yards south. Resting for about 10 minutes, Elvis later flew back to a tree just above his release point, then flew a quarter mile south, shaking off a half-hearted pursuit by several crows. He seemed ready to resume life as a normal juvenile bald eagle, still several years from establishing his own territory and mating.
Old dogs & grey whales
The successful rescue, rehabilitation, and release began when the ANIMALS 24-7 team on April 20, 2018 ventured to Hidden Beach, a few blocks from our home and headquarters, to jog, walk with our dog Bo, and watch wildlife.
In particular, we hoped to see whales, having seen both grey whales and orcas earlier in the week, farther out in the Saratoga Passage.
Grey whales were present, foraging for ghost shrimp and spouting in the shallows, closer than we had seen them before, but we had barely had time to look before distant neighbor Jim Pfifer rushed up with his old Malamute.
Jim told us he had seen an injured eagle on the beach about a mile north, but he had been unable to approach because he was afraid the Malamute might have spooked the eagle into sudden movement, making whatever the problem was worse.
Uncertain if the eagle would still be there, with the tide already high and rising fast, we decided Merritt would run up the beach to reconnoiter, while Beth followed with Bo, and tried to photograph the whales on her way.
Merritt found the eagle, a four-year-old male, right where Jim said he would be, perched on a piece of driftwood near the base of a cliff, opening and closing his mouth and stretching out his wings, but unable to fly.
Merritt’s first thought was to see if the eagle might step over to a smaller piece of driftwood, that he could carry back to Beth, but the eagle was having none of that. There was nothing for Merritt to do but meet Beth, take Bo, jog back to the parking lot along the ribbon of sand, crushed shells, rocks, and seaweed that remained above the tide, and go get our biggest dog crate, leaving Bo at home.
Now or never
Beth, a former vet tech, experienced with big birds, did a field assessment of the eagle’s condition and named him “Elvis.”
Recounted Beth later on Facebook, “The tide kept rising. Before Merritt could return, Elvis tried to climb the cliff and fell a foot or two. I used my jacket to cover him and lifted it slowly to find his humongous talons. Once I had his legs secure in my hand, I pulled down the other part of my jacket and covered his head with my knit hat, then scooped him up in my jacket and made my way to meet Merritt, who was now in sight,” carrying the big dog crate, splashing through the surf as the whales circled and fed nearby.
“We placed Elvis in the large crate and made our way back through the rising tide, over a mile of snags and driftwood,” Beth continued. “We were tired, but determined! We did it!”
At the biggest snag, where we had no choice but to wade, one of the whales glided by parallel to us, almost close enough to exchange “high fives.”
All shook up
We drove Elvis to the veterinary clinic in Oak Harbor that helped Ollie the malnourished great horned owl a little over a year earlier, after he crashed into the surf and Beth plucked him out.
The only enduring casualty of the episode was Beth’s cell phone.
Somehow, in carrying Elvis down the beach, Beth’s cell phone absorbed a fatal dose of salty moisture, perhaps from whale spray––she did not drop it.
Because Beth uses her cell phone to do all of her work for ANIMALS 24-7, including photography and photo-editing, we replaced it immediately. But unfortunately an appeal we sent to readers soon afterward failed to recover the full cost of the replacement.
Beth, meanwhile, returned Elvis to the wild after rescuing two runaway dogs from traffic in two days.
Sophie, a beagle mix, had escaped from her home, without her person realizing she was gone, and was running around in the road nearby.
The other dog, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel, escaped from her person’s car en route to a veterinary appointment by jumping out of the open driver’s side window when the driver stopped at an intersection. We saw the spaniel and the driver racing around in frantic, chaotic circles through several large front yards, while the car sat idling in the road.
While Merritt was parking and putting on our four-way flashers, Beth ran across the road, squatted down, and called to the spaniel––who immediately broke out of his wild orbit to run directly into her arms.
Help us make it through the night!
Doing hands-on animal rescue is not our focal mission here at ANIMALS 24-7, but when occasion demands, whether to lead a llama out of traffic as we did in September 2014, or to pick up a lost ferret at a city park, as we did in March 2017, or to bring an injured eagle to safety through the surf, we take pride in demonstrating how to do it quickly, safely, and effectively––just as we take pride in presenting calm, professionally delivered news and analysis.