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Eagle’s flight presents a golden opportunity to learn

John F. Russell / Steamboat Pilot & Today
Tracy Bye smiles as Alita, a golden eagle injured after colliding with a car last year near the Colorado-Wyoming boarder, takes flight in Loudy-Simpson Park in Craig.
John F. Russell / Steamboat Pilot & Today

Tracy Bye will tell you that everyday she has an opportunity to help an injured animal recover is special. But as she drove her pickup truck up a rough dirt road to Cedar Mountain on Tuesday, with a golden eagle riding in the back, it was abundantly clear just how far she would go.

“Of course it’s special, but I love every day no matter what animal I’m working with — it’s always a privilege working with them,” said Bye, who started the Born Free Wildlife Rehabilitation in Steamboat Springs in 1993.

However, it isn’t every day that Bye gets the chance to release a golden eagle, and it isn’t every day that she offers an eagle a second chance at life.

“I love it,” Bye said. “I love it when we get to release them, and they can get back to where they are happiest.”

Bye was introduced to Alita, the 13-pound golden eagle riding in the back, last August after getting a call from Mike Swaro the Assistant Area Wildlife Manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife based in Craig. He had just come to the aid of the eagle that had collided with a vehicle near the Colorado-Wyoming border. He has worked with Bye in the past and knew she could help. Bye responded, evaluated the eagle and quickly reached out to the Birds of Prey Foundation in Broomfield, a nonprofit that cares for and rehabilitates some of Colorado’s biggest birds.

“I really had very little to do with this one, it was mostly Heidi (Bucknam) at Birds of Prey,” Bye said. “I’m like the country doctor, and she is like the Mayo Clinic.”

Mike Swaro, the assistant area wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and intern Shane Talvacchil carry a golden eagle named Alita to a nearby picnic shelter where the shade will keep her cool as biologist Robert Murphy attaches a transmitter that will send information about the golden eagle’s movements to scientists.
John F. Russell / Steamboat Pilot & Today

Bucknam is the executive director of the organization and agreed to take the eagle into her facility. She has been helping Alita recover for more than 11 months. On Monday, Bye drove to Broomfield, then picked Alita up Tuesday morning and drove straight to the planned release sight.

After arriving, Alita was fitted with a breakaway transmitter that will track the eagle’s movements for the next year. Biologist Robert Murphy also collected blood samples for DNA tracking, attached a band to Alita’s talon and took photographs of the tail feathers that will be used to determine the eagle’s age.

“We never really know how well the rehabilitated birds survive, so that’s what we are doing,” Murphy said. “We want to get a survival rate estimate, so for these birds, we are using a harness with a couple of cotton stitches, and we are hoping it will only be on the bird for a year.”

Murphy worked for 24 years as a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before he retired. He now works for a private company that is working with golden eagle conservation planning, aerial surveys of wildlife and analysis of survey data. He was contracted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to attach Alita’s transmitter and monitor her progress.

“I can’t wait to see how far she goes, how high she flies and where she winters,” said Bye, who was thrilled when she learned that Alita would be part of the program. “It will also be interesting to see if she stays in Craig.”

But for Murphy, the transmitters are about more than just tracking a single eagle, and he hopes that the data he collects will help the wind energy industry make decisions about where to locate wind turbines, which have greatly impacted the golden eagle population across the country.

On Tuesday, Swaro and Bye were on hand as the transmitter was attached. The winds were strong at Cedar Mountain, and after Alita’s first attempt, the group decided to relocate to nearby Loudy-Simpson Park for another attempt. That evening as the sunset of the Yampa Valley and the winds had calmed, Alita took flight and landed on the branch of a nearby tree. Murphy said she was likely to spend the night preening, getting used to her surroundings and, he hoped, to make the most of her second chance.

“It’s amazing so little is known about golden eagles,” Murphy said. “When we are tracking eagles we have about a dozen objectives — causes of mortality, survival rates depending on age classes … and then dispersal, migration, movements and just all those habitat variables that help us predict where they’re going to be at a given time of year.”


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