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Mooseheart eagles take flight at Starved Rock

Dawn Keller, founder and director of Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation in Barrington, releases one of two eagles at Starved Rock State Park Saturday. The eagles were rescued from the campus of Mooseheart Academy, where their nest was blown out of a tree during a storm last spring.
Dawn Keller, founder and director of Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation in Barrington, releases one of two eagles at Starved Rock State Park Saturday. The eagles were rescued from the campus of Mooseheart Academy, where their nest was blown out of a tree during a storm last spring.

STARVED ROCK STATE PARK - The Mooseheart eaglets have a new home.

Saturday, amid applause, cheers and chorus of oohs and aahs, the pair of juvenile bald eagles that had captured the attention and imagination of people in the Tri-Cities and elsewhere were released into the wild at Starved Rock State Park.

A crowd of more than 750 people gathered along the wall bordering the Illinois River at the state park near Utica in downstate LaSalle County to watch as the eagles were pulled from cages and then let loose to fly above the river and the woods on Plum Island, an isle in the middle of the Illinois River just south of the Starved Rock Lock and Dam that has become a sanctuary for a large winter population of the birds of prey.

The journey to Starved Rock began months ago for the eagles.

The then-infant eaglets were living in a nest in a tree on the campus of Mooseheart, south of Batavia. During that time, they had already gained the attention of bird watchers and others who flocked regularly to see the eaglets and their nesting parents.

But around Memorial Day, a storm knocked the eaglets to the ground. A photographer was among the first to notice, and called Barrington-based Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation to see if they could help the birds.

Dawn Keller, director at Flint Creek, brought a rescue team to Mooseheart and located the eaglets. The team soon put the birds back in a new nest in a tree near their original nest.

But the eagle parents, while still in the area, did not attempt to feed their young over several days, threatening the eaglets with starvation.

Keller said Flint Creek then decided to take the eaglets to their Barrington facility, where they were cared for in the months leading up to Saturday's release. To facilitate the eaglets recovery, Flint Creek even constructed a 100-foot flight chamber to train the birds to fly. That project has placed Flint Creek "very short" financially, Keller said.

As the eagles grew, Keller said they had to select a location to release the healthy and growing birds.

They eventually settled on Starved Rock because there the now seven-month-old eagles could find a large established population of bald eagles that winters near the Starved Rock Dam, taking advantage of generally ice-free water and abundant fish populations to survive the frigid months.

Keller said the eagles can use survival skills they learned while at Flint Creek, including how to steal food from other eagles and scavenge.

"With birds, it's always a question if they can survive that first year in the wild," Keller said. "But we've given them a bit of a head start, I think."

She said she was pleased by the birds' reaction to the release.

"They flew strong," Keller said.

The first eagle released initially flew south from a small beach on Plum Island toward the crowd gathered on the south bank of the Illinois River, eliciting cries of delight, a rapid continuous chorus of clicks from cameras and cheers of "Go, go!" from onlookers. The eagle then turned back toward the island and eventually made a bumpy landing on the island's south bank.

The second eagle released minutes later immediately flew north into a wooded section of the island and disappeared into the trees.

After the second eagle was released, the crowd burst into applause, before disbursing and talking of what they had seen as they walked from the river back to the Starved Rock Visitors Center, where volunteers from Flint Creek treated visitors to a program in which they displayed other birds of prey in the care of the wild animal rescue organization.

The event drew people from throughout the Tri-Cities and elsewhere in the Chicago area and northern Illinois.

Some had only recently become acquainted with the birds' story.

Jenny Sze and Bryn Griffiths, of Oak Park, said they had come to take in the rare spectacle of a guaranteed view of two bald eagles taking flight in the wild for the first time.

"We were looking for something to do here on a Saturday visit, and this was perfect," said Sze.

Others, however, had followed the birds' lives virtually from the start.

Don Weis, of Geneva, said he had regularly gone to a wooded area near Mooseheart to watch the eaglets' parents.

"I was really sad to hear that they got knocked out of their nest, and I was really curious to see how they had done and what had happened to them since then," Weis said. "This is just a great thing, and I wanted to see it for myself."


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