The Joy Of Releasing A White-Tailed Eagle

 Szilard by Sos Tibor see also

If tourists who love nature keep their eyes open for the numerous wonders the mysterious watery realm of the Danube Delta has to offer, they will almost certainly notice great birds of prey gliding in circles in the sky which appears to be just an extension of giant clear lakes. Only pelicans could compete in size or in flight with these raptorial birds, which seem to have appeared from fairy tales with griffins and dragons… These are the white-tailed eagles, majestic birds of prey which formerly used to be one of the most common species of eagles not only in the Danube Delta, but also in the rest of the country, especially in the Danube Plain and along great rivers. Today they can only be found in few places.Young white-tailed eagles are much more gregarious, and several specimens can be observed together not only in winter when water birds come together, but also in spring and summer, when they gather around shallow waters where carps reproduce, or around bird colonies, especially cormorant ones, as cormorant chicks sometimes represent their daily food. In this case the predator white-tailed eagles play a part in the maintenance of an ecological equilibrium as they keep a slight control on an explosive increase in the population of big cormorants, which could endanger the fish population in the Delta.Until 25 years ago the main threat to white-tailed eagles was the gradual accumulation in their bodies of organo-chlorurate substances of great remanence of the DTT type used in agriculture, which led to the death of some and the sterility of others. Consequently, such sterile specimens have occupied for years territories where younger specimens, not affected by such toxins, could have reproduced. The problem was pretty serious, as eagles are recognized for their longevity, which can exceed 25 years. Nowadays, the problem is less acute because of the ban on the usage of such substances, and we believe that one of the major threats to this species in our country is the human pressure on the nesting areas, because the white tailed eagles in our country prefer nesting in areas harder for humans to access, areas which are more and more difficult to find today. Next to Kuzmintii lake, close to Vulturu village, I have personally observed how in one year when the Danube was frozen until March, a white-tailed pair had built a nest not too far away from a fisherman's hut. It had laid eggs and had started hatching but not long after thawing, when professional fishermen returned to the area, I noticed that the white-tailed eagles had abandoned the nest with eggs… Similar cases were not scarce, and that is why we believe that it is necessary to monitor white-tailed eagles more carefully starting as early as January in order to discover in time the active nests and declare protected areas around them at least until the chicks in the nests can fly. It is puzzling that hunting is sometimes allowed in the Delta until March, although it is known that birds of prey, especially white-tailed eagles, occasionally come close by and steal from the water the birds killed by hunters. Hunters might show little tolerance towards such white-tailed eagles and shoot them. On the other hand, eating birds which contain grains of shot could gradually lead to saturnism (lead poisoning), followed by the death of the white-tailed eagles.Although in the past years the number of the white tailed-eagles in the Delta appears to be stable, if not slightly growing, and in the Danube Valley their presence has become increasingly noticeable, we have to understand that this species continues to need special protection and that there is still a long way to go before we can say that this is not an endangered species.That is why we consider legitimate the intervention of the Environmental Guard in Onesti, where an immature white-tailed eagle was kept in a small zoo administered by the town hall. It is not known how this specimen was brought from the Danube Delta and put in a cage two years ago. The environmental authorities warned the authorities at the zoo to release the bird. At the Romanian Ornithological Society office in Tulcea I was contacted by phone in order to suggest a location in the Delta where they could release the bird. After hearing it was an immature bird which had spent almost two years in a cage, I realized that simply freeing the bird without prior preparations would in fact mean sentencing it to death. In the cage, the bird had lost its ability to hunt, and given the mysterious way in which the bird arrived at the zoo, it was not impossible for the bird to have been a chick not able not to fly when it was caught, thus completely ignorant of how to find food in the wilderness. I asked them not to hurry. I contacted my friend Szilard Daroczi from the Association for the Protection of Birds and Nature "Grupul Milvus" ("The Milvus Group") in Targu Mures because I knew they had opened there a small centre for the rehabilitation of birds of pray with problems. Szilard also agreed that it would have been a mistake to release the bird without prior preparation so he took the bird from Onesti as soon as he received the approval of the environmental authorities. He took it to their centre in Targu-Mures where they prepared for it an aviary much larger than the cage in Onesti and a team of youths had the responsibility to feed and train it. The bird had to break out of the habit of depending on humans. It also had to learn to fear humans, because upon release it was absolutely necessary for the bird to avoid getting close to humans. The bird was fed mainly live animals (guinea pigs, smaller rabbits) which it had to learn how to catch in order to eat. It was also fed fish, because in the Delta fish would probably become an important food source. Its hunting instincts were awakened step by step and the habits acquired during the rehabilitation months made the bird much wilder than it had been upon arrival. The bird stayed in Targu-Mures during the period of rehabilitation from November until the end of May, when it appeared that it had regained its hunting and flying abilities. Gregor, a volunteer from France was also a member of the team which took care of the bird during this whole time. The rehabilitation period ended on the 26th of May. I contacted again Mr. Neculai Bahaciu, the Chief Inspector of Security of Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve Authority (DDBRA), who had also opposed the release of the bird without prior preparation. We tried to find the best location and we decided together to release the bird on fish-breeding farm Maliuc, where the owner Nucu Dobranauteanu assured us that the bird would not be disturbed; the activities from the farm would be conducted outside the area we designated. We chose the Maliuc Farm because two pairs of adult white-tailed eagles and even immature white-tailed eagles could be observed on the farm almost every day. The birds were there to fish in the rich pools or to catch bald coots or ducks which are very numerous in that area. We also liked the place because it did not have trees nearby and we could thus observe much better how well the bird would fly when the big day came. Mr. Ifrim Costel, the Chief Commissary of the Environmental Guard of the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve offered his support, showing considerable interest in the process of release.On the night of the 26th two cars arrived from Targu-Mures to Tulcea carrying Szilard Daroczi, Sos Tibor, Gregor, the French volunteer, and of course the cage with the white-tailed eagle. They were all accommodated in the guest room of the ROS Office. Early in the morning we all headed by car towards Nufarul in order to catch the first ferry and take the cars across the Danube to Ilgani. From there we left in a hurry on the low-quality road connecting Ilganii de Jos and Partizani village, where the ecologist agent Achimfiev Constantin was waiting for us with a fast boat. He was going to help us throughout the procedure of releasing the eagle, which we were hoping would be as short as possible.We arrived at the place of release which could be reached only by crossing a canal in a fishing boat. We wanted the place to be safe, hard to access and as far as possible from the gaze of tourists and locals. Szilard caught the bird and took it out of the special transportation cage. After almost 24 hours it had spent in the small cage and after the long and exhausting trips by car and by boat, the bird appeared stressed enough. We took pictures of the bird. It had been previously ringed and some signs had been lightly painted in white on its wings to make it easier to recognize in flight. Judging by the color of the peak and the structure of the plumage, the white-tailed eagle was a subadult, most probably around 4 years old. We decided to slowly set it free on the ground, and we withdrew a certain distance in order to see what was happening. Crammed in the cage, it had appeared much smaller and we believed it to be male, however seeing it free in front of my eyes, cleaning and ruffling its feathers, it appeared much bigger and I thought it was probably female. I gave it water from a plastic container and it drank in long sips. It flapped its wings a couple of times in order to lose its numb feeling and it rose approximately a meter, then slowly went down again. There were other sessions of warming up the wings, which were not followed by the long awaited taking off. After almost one hour of waiting we realized that almost certainly the quick release we had expected would not take place that day. It would be a longer and more difficult process, so we had to move to plan B which we had discussed before bringing the bird to the Delta. We crafted a rather large fold around the bird, using some stakes and a net that Pavel Gheorghe from Maliuc gave us. We were going to close the fold only during night time in order to protect the bird from the possible presence of dogs or foxes, in case the bird did not fly. We also brought a log to the fold so that the bird could sit at a certain height from the ground. From the beginning of the project it was decided Gregor would have the responsibility to watch the bird day and night. In order to keep him alert especially during night time, we told him that it was possible for jackals to show up in the area. The poor Frenchman, whose burning desire was to see at least one jackal, almost did not sleep during night time hoping that jackals would show up. He did not even put up his tent.Because of the burning sun during daytime, we cut some reed and mace which we leaned against a part of the net in the fold so that the bird would have some kind of bower. After the first hours, two white-tailed eagles flew above the fold and upon seeing our eagle, an adult white-tailed eagle started calling it, probably thinking it was its own chick. The white-tailed eagle looked up at the sky appearing scared rather than eager to communicate with the bird circling above. Watching the hesitation of our white-tailed eagle, I thought of an old and subtle allegorical poem of the Soviet poet Evgeny Evtushenko about an arctic fox which had managed to escape from a farm, taking advantage of the carelessness of the caretaker who left the cage door open one day. The poem ended on a of tone of bitter irony, suggesting a sad moral about the price of freedom and about how unprepared those who want it really are: after a few days of roaming the surroundings trying to enjoy freedom, the fox returns to its cage on the farm, not having been able to manage alone in the wilderness.Was our eagle going to return to its cage for good?The people from the Environmental Guard also came to see what was going on with the bird.We brought food for the bird again (chicken and fish), it ate, preferring to sit in the shade, rather than fly. Gregor was watching through the binoculars what was going on with the bird. We phoned him often to see how things were and it seemed as if nothing of what we were expecting was happening. The bird drank water, ate, flapped its wings, but did not want to explore the surroundings. On the third day it rained, thundered and lightened. During nighttime there was a storm, but it the morning the weather was warm and fair. At about 10 a.m. we received a call from Gregor telling us that the bird had started to fly, at first only about 50 meters, then it rose again crossing the canal at a distance of approximately 300 meters, it left the farm and stopped in a willow, but it did not stay there for long. It flew for another 500 meters and stopped in a willow in the riverside coppice. We came to take Gregor out of the farm and set him on the spit with willows where the white-tailed eagle was, so that he could keep an eye on it. At some point, some speckled crows started to nag the white-tailed eagle, but after a while they left it alone. In the afternoon the bird flew again. For two days Gregor searched every willow on the spit hoping to see the bird again. We, too, explored the surroundings by boat, but it was a huge area, we were seeking a needle in a haystack. Those were places with rich food sources: a lot of bald coots, fish of course, and if it were difficult to catch any of these, there were thousand of frogs jumping in the wet grass or in lakes with shallow water. These frogs could have ensured its survival. Despite our searches, we did not have any signal of its presence until, almost two weeks after the release, DDBRA ranger Achimfiev Constantin, while on mission at more than six 6 km away from the release place, was able to see a white-tailed eagle, similar to the one which had been released. It seemed like the white-tailed eagle wanted to follow the boat for a while, but it then disappeared behind the trees as soon as he stopped the boat in order to examine whether the distinctive signs of the released bird could be noticed on that bird. The thrill continues, but personally I hope that after the bird gets used to flying, it will become easier to notice, since white-tailed eagles enjoy flying in circles, sometimes for tens of minutes, above the areas they inhabit. Over the next few months I will carefully examine any white-tailed eagle I see flying in that part of the Delta where the release took place. Despre pasari (About Birds), June 2009 (See Translated by Luciana Dobre 

by Eugen Petrescu