NORTH THETFORD — When postal worker Bill Lynch showed up at the North Thetford boat launch on Tuesday, camera in hand, he hoped to snap a few photos of birds in the midmorning mist.
He thought maybe he’d see some turkey vultures, he said .
In fact, much more was in store: the release of a juvenile bald eagle, eager and ready to return to the wild after being rehabilitated for several weeks after it was discovered with a significant head trauma.
“What did I stumble onto?” he asked, as a crowd of onlooker began to build.
It was an exceptional occasion even for the experienced staff at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science, who nursed the bird of prey back to health and organized Tuesday’s release. The special event came as bald eagles continue their comeback from near extinction across the Twin States and nationwide.
VINS Wildlife Service Manager Sara Eisenhauer, who oversaw the bird’s rehabilitation and release, said she’s released too many birds to count in her seven years with the Quechee-based nonprofit, but Tuesday marked only her second release of a bald eagle.
“They’re a force to be reckoned with,” she said, “so when we release them, we’re happy, but we’re also incredibly relieved.”
Bald eagles were driven to “the edge of extinction” in the mid-20th century due to hunting, habitat loss and widespread use of an insecticide that caused them to lay brittle eggs, according to The Nature Conservancy, a worldwide conservation organization.
Officially declared an endangered species in 1967, they’ve been forging a resurgence since the insecticide — known as DDT — was banned in the early 1970s, growing from an estimated 417 breeding pairs in the continental United States in the 1950s to nearly 10,000 breeding pairs today.
A similar trend has been seen in the Twin States, especially in recent years, said New Hampshire Audubon Senior Biologist Chris Martin, who tracks bald eagle populations in the Granite State and the Connecticut River watershed.
There were fewer than five bald eagles born, or “fledged,” in the watershed in 2004, compared with nearly 30 last year.
“All the numbers in the last five years are shooting upwards very rapidly,” Martin said. “The population’s growing very vigorously right now.”
The population of breeding bald eagles in the Twin States was “virtually nonexistent 25 years ago,” he said, but as populations have grown in neighbor states such as New York, Maine and Massachusetts, some of those birds are “filling in” the empty territories in Vermont and New Hampshire.
Eisenhauer said the presence of the bald eagle rehabilitated by VINS — estimated to be about 11/2 to 2 years old — is “another indication of how much better they’re doing in the state.” A game warden discovered the 8-pound bird on the side of the road in Danby on March 21, apparently clipped by a car as it had been eating a deer carcass.
The fact there are juveniles show that the species is breeding here, Eisenhauer said, and although the bird seemed to be struggling to feed itself during a tough winter, the reason for its care was predominately a vehicle strike, not natural causes.
Indeed, when VINS officials received the bird, it could barely lift its head and was nearly starved to death.
“The first 24 hours we had it, we didn’t think it was going to survive,” Eisenhauer said.
Less than three weeks later, about 15 people associated with VINS drove to Thetford to watch the bird’s release shortly before 10:30 a.m. A caravan of vehicles, including a van carrying the eagle in a cage, arrived at the launch onto the Connecticut River, a location chosen for its openness and access to open water “where you would typically find eagles,” Eisenhauer said.
Even now, Eisenhauer estimated the bird’s chances for survival at about 50/50. Bald eagles develop their signature white heads and tails around 5-7 years old and can live into their early teens, sometimes their 20s, but it’s “tough out there in the wild,” Eisenhauer said.
“I would hope with the extra nutrition and strength the bird gained while staying with us, that it will increase its chances a little,” she said.
After a few minutes of chatting, Eisenhauer asked the crowd to step back so that she and VINS wildlife services intern Maddy Jacobs could extract the eagle from the cage, a challenging process involving arm-length orange gloves and a large white net resembling an oversized butterfly catcher.
When the bird had been removed from the car, Eisenhauer held it for the group to see from across the parking lot and briefly told its story. Upon its arrival, VINS officials quickly started a regimen of fluids and vitamins. By the next day, “it was like a light-switch went off,” Eisenhauer said, as the bird was alert, aggressive and “voracious.”
They continued feeding it and eventually moved it to a flight-training enclosure to make sure it was healthy enough for release.
The bird’s gender was not determined — Eisenhauer said blood tests can identify a young bald eagle’s gender but there was no need to do so — and it calmly blinked its eyes and looked ahead as Eisenhauer held it in her arms, its back against her stomach, her forearms wrapped around its wings and her hands on its talons, while Jacobs carefully held its head.
And then, with a heave of their arms, the women tossed the eagle into the air. The crowd watched as the raptor pumped its wings, glided across the parking lot and ascended into a tree overlooking the river, where it perched.
The crowd broke into applause.
“Oh, my god, that was amazing,” Lynch, the amateur ornithologist, said after. “It’s nice to see that, that he was able to be saved. To walk in on this, it’s wild.”
Maggie Cassidy can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3220.