Rescue of a Wedge-tailed Eagle

As a volunteer wildlife rescuer you always remember your first rescue, not just your very first (which for me was back in 2008, an adult Tawny Frogmouth), but the first of any significantly amazing species.

I have been concentrating on rescuing raptors and owls for the past four years. It’s been tough, there are many rescues that end up on a very sad note, but there are enough positive outcomes to boost your energy and passion back to keep going.

This story, sadly, has no happy ending, but it was a significant milestone for me, being the very first Wedge-tailed Eagle I rescued since taking on raptors and owls. This eagle is the biggest predatory bird in Australia with adults that can have a wingspan of around 2 meters or more and they may weigh as much as 4-5kg, occasionally closer to 6kg.

They still have a stronghold around the Sydney basin with specimens observed around the city’s outer perimeter and at times closer to human habitat.

This rescue came in from the new airport construction site at Badgery’s Creek in Sydney’s west. The eagle was able to fly, but was having a hard time perching. That is because one of its legs was broken. Of course you never really know the extent of the injury until you catch the bird. However, with a large bird that is capable of outflying the fastest human’s running speed, it’s definitely a massive challenge. Therefore a plan was formulated.

I asked the members of the public to keep an eye on the eagle while I ducked home to get some extra equipment and made my way to site. The bird stayed put and waited. The plan was that I was going to move in close to him and push him to fly then land. Then do it again as quickly as possible to tire him out. Eventually he will not have the energy to fly and will stay put. Of course, it’s much easier said than done.

The eagle flew and I followed. He landed on the ground about 150 meters away and as I got to within about 30 meters he flew again, but this time much further and across the service road that intersected the field. So off I went to try and catch him.

He was on a hill facing the wind. This is which makes the scenario tricky. Every time he took off into the wind, it gave him enough lift to get him to rise high enough to get a trajectory at least 100 meters away. This he did several times before he ran out of hill and wind to assist his escape. I knew once he was on flat ground and he got more tired, he would be less likely to fly.

He flew off three more times, but between each flight, I got closer and closer while he was on the ground. The last flight that he took to was when I was merely 5 meters from him. I knew this was the last flight coming up and he took off, tried to clear the low steel cable fence (thank god none of it was barbed wire out there) and as he clipped it, it tipped him forward and he fell to the ground. I was there in seconds, my heart by now pumping so hard I could literally feel it in my ears. I squeezed myself through the steel cables and he quickly tried to evade me in a last effort ditch to go back under the lowest steel fence cable. Now I had to squeeze my body halfway through the middle fence section, throw the towel on his head to subdue him and scoop him up fast.

Boy, those talons of his! They are the most dangerous weapons and each one has a serrated edge, so they are designed for maximum damage. I had to be super careful. As it was, he was not able to move his right leg at all, so in a way I was lucky only the left leg was fully functional. Even though the eagle was tired, the sheer muscle strength in his only working leg was phenomenal and I had to be really on the ball not let him grab me.

I know it sounds horrible to stress a bird and chase it to catch him. But it is far less horrible to not do anything and let him starve to death. Because that is exactly the direction in which he was heading. His keel was already way too prominent, meaning he was starving already, which also made it a bit quicker to catch him as his energy reserves were very low.

The eagle was now safe, and I could feel his breathing and his rapid heart rate against my own chest. Gosh, I was so relieved to be able to catch him to get him veterinary attention as soon as possible. No matter what, he would be in the best of hands.

When we examined his injuries back in the vet clinic, it was concluded, that his break in the right leg was an old injury and there was no chance to make it right. The incredibly hard, and sad, decision was made to humanely euthanase him.

To be able to help him and ensure he does not suffer anymore is the most important thing. Unfortunately, it was not an outcome any of us wished for, but at times like this it is the best choice to euthanase an animal, rather than try to repair an injury that may never heal properly. I cried all the way home from the clinic. I have a huge soft spot for animals and cannot stand watching them suffer. The best feeling is when you are able to release something that you rescued, but you can’t win ’em all!

One small consolation is that while we were chasing him around I was able to take a few nice images of him showing his majestic presence as Australia’s most formidable avian predator. Even if he did not have a very long life.

To be able to watch him take to the air and fly was an incredible honour. We got to see his last flight. It’s something none of us will ever forget.

Rest in peace young eagle, fly free above!

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