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The eaglet returns home

The Odyssey of an eaglet - and the volunteers who wanted to save it at all costs

The young Bonelli ‘s Eagle shortly after its release from captivityThe young Bonelli ‘s Eagle shortly after its release from captivity During the period that volunteers of the Sicilian Raptor Protection Coordination Group (of which CABS has been a member since 2012) mounted a full time watch on a number of Bonelli's eagle nests, including those considered most at risk, a nest that had been checked by the volunteers on the previous day, 8 May, was robbed and the two eaglets - just over a month and a half old - had disappeared. Rope marks found by volunteers on site suggested that someone had abseiled down to the nest to steal the chicks. On-site volunteers are only the next day rope marks, reflecting the fact that someone has fallen down to steal the eagles. The watch coordinator, dismayed, writes in his log: “It is hard to believe that we have photographs of the two chicks from 8 May and now there is an empty nest”.

Nevertheless, the team did not lose heart and passed all evidence and information to the State Forest Police. Less than a month later the young eaglets were found by their CITES investigation branch in a ruined castle near the town of Alexandria in Northern Italy. One eaglet had sadly died of starvation; the second was still alive and well. The building also contained a clandestine workshop for forging bird rings. In addition falsified Dutch CITES certificates, climbing gear and trapping equipment were found. Six young Peregrine Falcons, also stolen from the nest were also seized, as well as numerous dead birds in a freezer.

An interview with the chief of the Forest Police Cites Investigation Team with shots of the raid and release of the eagle can be seen in the video below.

The immediate burning question was how the eagle is to be released. It could be kept in a rehabilitation centre; but there was also a chance that the parents would accept it back and raise it until it is fit to cope on its own. The continued nest fidelity of the parents spoke for the latter course; but ialmost two months had passed since their chick was stolen. Was the risk worth taking? The watch coordinator believes it is.

And so, after the magistrate had formally signed the release documents, the eaglet is driven back to Sicily. It is received by the volunteers who transport it to the eyrie escarpment at dusk and leave it on a spur of rock. Dawn will reveal what happens next.

At first matters are somewhat unclear. The parent eagles are reserved and neither chase the eaglet away nor do they feed or appear to accept the young bird. It must be capable of flight by now but has never had the opportunity to fledge naturally. If the parents do not feed it how will the young bird survive?

The coordinator’s log continues: The adult female soaring on thermals with its offspringThe adult female soaring on thermals with its offspring

  • 29 June: At 4.30 p.m. the eaglet is placed on a spur of rock in an area frequented by the parent birds. At 8.30 p.m., after the adult birds appear in the area and have clearly registered the presence of the eaglet, the young bird is released. It flies a short distance and alights on the ground some 500 m away from the observers. Shortly thereafter the adult birds carry out alternating stoops near the young bird in an apparent attempt to encourage it to fly. It is not clear if the adults have brought food ,although some of the observers believe that one of the adults had an item of prey in its talons. As dark fell visual contact is lost but the radio signal continus to come from the same area.
  • 30 June: The next morning, with feverish anticipation, the team visits the same spot. The eaglet makes three spontaneous attempts to fly - on the third occasion it caught a thermal and soared for the first time in its young life. With a skill that left the observers breathless the bird swooped down to land on a ridge on the opposite side of the valley where it spent the night.
  • 1 July : The eaglet is located at some distance from the nest and it then returns to the home valley around 1.00 p.m., although visual contact is not made. It moves around a great deal, but the most important development is that in the late afternoon it is perched on a rock together with its parents. Although feeding has not been observed, this behaviour leads us to believe that this has occurred and that the family unit is now once more intact.

A digiscope photo from Sunday morning. Quite a difference from seeing it in the cage.A digiscope photo from Sunday morning. Quite a difference from seeing it in the cage.

  • 2 July: Eduardo and Giovanni receive instructions on radio tracking from Massimiliano. Again the observers are certain that the parents have fed the young bird as it if flying a great deal and appears full of energy. Most of the time though it is out of sight and can be located only by radio signal.

All in all a very satisfying end to what could have been a tragic story. Only some 20 days after reporting the theft the chick is found, released by the magistrate in record time, brought home to its birthplace and is reunited with its parents (with video evidence) as if nothing had happened. It is hard to believe we have not imagined the whole thing

The log continues

  • 3 July: With so much field activity the log is easily neglected. It has just been reported that the parents and the young eaglet are in flight. From an observation point in a reforested area we observe the male soar, stoop a couple of times to encourage the young bird, and then all three are in the air, a family reunited. A splendid sight and a fitting close to the season, with its ups and downs, good moments and temporary discomforts.
  • 6 July: Massimiliano returned to the site in the late afternoon to confirm that the eagle returned to the eyrie area in the evening which it did. The bird has now settled down into a normal routine flying alone or with its parents, returning to the home site in the evening to roost and with an apparent familiarity of the area. Its reintroduction seems to have been successful. Now it is also reunited with the rest of the new population of 25 fledged juveniles. We will continue our monitoring but our efforts are hampered by the lack of a satellite telephone to maintain contact with all the nest sites in Sicily. There is still room for considerable improvement in the management of the project

IBonelli's Eagle nest watch volunteers on dutyIBonelli's Eagle nest watch volunteers on duty

  • 7 July: Several members of the team go to monitor the eaglet’s progress. Only two of the team have sighted it to date, at some distance from the eyrie. It moves around a great deal and is even difficult to track by radio, We do however observe the parent birds that appear to be in the ‘honeymoon’ stage. They are always together and delight us with their display flights.

Thank you Bonelli’s Eagle!