‘He’s doing well’: Injured Marco fledgling taken to Conservancy wildlife hospital

Lance Shearer

Marco Island’s eagles have been going through some tough times. The young eagle recently found injured beneath its nest behind the Publix on San Marco Road is only the latest to undergo a mishap, go missing, or suffer a fatal accident. Before that eaglet was found, apparently injured, and taken to the von Arx Wildlife Hospital at the Conservancy of Naples by volunteers on March 19, its sibling had also been found on the ground and lifeless.

At the eagle cam maintained by the Marco Island Nature Preserve and Bird Sanctuary on the north end of the island, there have been no eagles to see, as no birds have nested there this year. In 2020, a pair of great horned owls, tough enough to fend off a challenge from the eagles and on an earlier nesting schedule, took over the nest, said preserve spokesperson Linda Turner.

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The year before that, two eaglets were hatched but both fell to the ground and were evacuated to the Conservancy. And in 2018, the original pair of eagles on the Eagle Sanctuary nest, named Paleo and Calusa by the schoolchildren of Tommie Barfield Elementary, suffered tragedy when Paleo, the male, died after flying into a powerline while fending off a challenge from another male. The new male moved in, and ejected the two eaglets, the offspring of his predecessor on the nest, who were fledging on the nest.

Joanna Fitzgerald, director of the von Arx Hospital, is hopeful their current eagle patient will have a happier ending.

“He’s doing well, and once he’s fully recovered; we will return him close to the same spot near his nest,” she said. Fitzgerald made clear that the choice of pronoun is for convenience, as they have not determined the gender of the eaglet. They also do not name the wild animals that come to the hospital for treatment, as that would be one step toward domesticating a wild creature, the opposite of the Conservancy’s intent.

The eaglet was being housed in a 55-ft. long enclosure that gives him room to fly – in the case of a fledgling, to really learn to fly for the first time – and regain his strength. He is fed a diet of rats and fish, with the rodent size paired with the size of the avian diner.

Audubon Eagle Watch volunteer Nancy Judd spotted the eaglet on the ground on March 18. She and volunteer Rosemary Tolliver observed the bird before contacting the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and the Conservancy. “The nest maybe fell apart,” speculated Fitzgerald as to how the young bird ended up on the ground.

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When it was determined the eagle was not doing well, the Conservancy dispatched longtime volunteer bird wrangler Tim Thompson, an experienced collector, to bring him to the von Arx Hospital.

Assisted by intern Victoria Hemingway, Thompson donned sturdy leather raptor gloves, and used a custom-made contraption like a butterfly net on a long pole to capture and immobilize the eagle. “They’re not as bothered by the net as they are by people,” he said.

A photo Thompson shot shows that, even at a young age, an eagle is equipped with some impressive talons, and not to be approached lightly. “You need to be cautious – you don’t want to hurt them,” said Thompson, ignoring the potential for the damage to be inflicted by the bird rather than on it. “Each feather on an eagle is important. They’re not docile unless they’re hurt.” One of the eagle’s wings, he said, would not extend, indicating something was wrong.

When they performed a physical evaluation at the Conservancy, said Fitzgerald, it “showed no external injuries and radiographs were clear of fractures, but the eagle was definitely hesitant to use its left wing, indicating possible soft tissue damage.”

He has improved since arriving at the hospital, she said, but “he’s still hesitant, favoring that wing.” Once fully recovered, the von Arx staff hopes to reunite him with his parents and return him to their custody, if they are still occupying their Marco Island nest.

Right now is a busy time for local wildlife, with many babies rapidly growing, leaving their nests or dens, and often running into trouble, said Fitzgerald. In the past couple weeks, eastern cottontails, a nine-banded armadillo, grey squirrels, mockingbirds and grackles have all been admitted to von Arx.

The rats and fish for just the eagle costs $70 per week, and the Conservancy also is hosting two long-term eagle patients, adults with severe injuries, with four bald eagles currently in residence. Last year, the hospital served over 4,300 animals, a record year, and is on track to break that record this year, said Conservancy spokesperson Holly Boldrin.

Altogether, the von Arx Hospital operating budget is $672,000 per year and would be over a million dollars were it not for the efforts of their cadre of dedicated volunteers.

Fitzgerald lauded the work of another volunteer, Marco Island resident Bruce Robertson, whom she described as an “amazing carpenter.” He takes on a variety of building and maintenance projects at von Arx, but, he said, “started out as a ‘critter carrier’ 15 years ago.” He confirmed that eagles can be awkward to control. “Once they get a hold of you, it’s very difficult to get them to release their grip.”

Even if you are not ready to tangle with eagles, the Conservancy has a constant need of volunteers for the von Arx Wildlife Hospital. More details are at conservancy.org. The Conservancy has also launched a “feed the eagles” fundraiser on their Facebook page, said Boldrin. While the work at the wildlife hospital continues unabated, 365 days a year, their public Nature Center in Naples remains closed while undergoing a major renovation and expansion, with reopening date yet to be announced.

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The Marco Island Nature Preserve and Bird Sanctuary is also soliciting donations to maintain and improve their facilities on Tigertail Court, said Turner, with a new walking trail now open and a pavilion with an outdoor classroom in the works. More information is at marcoislandnaturepreserve.org.