Where eagles dare, scientists now watch...WITH VIDEO
Coastal Review Online
a rescued bald eagle flying over our coast might even be more fun than
following the travels of a great white shark off of our coast.
would take a hard heart not to be touched by the adventures of
Yangchen, a young rehabilitated bald eagle that has been soaring above
the skies of northeastern North Carolina since her release in January.
from near death on a North Carolina beach two years ago, the
revitalized raptor seems to have taken a liking to the coastal plain
between Plymouth and the Outer Banks.
for sure a success story,” said Joni Gnyp, a veterinarian and founder
of the Cape Fear Raptor Center. “She’s an awesome bird.”
to the magic of GPS, humans can see Yangchen’s movement on a map
researchers use to track her, similar to watching the wildly popular
great white shark Mary Lee as she prowls off the East Coast.
with anthropomorphic tendencies could appreciate the wanderings of the
young female eagle as she searches for a suitable place to find a mate.
named after a character in Nickelodeon’s animated television series,
“Avatar: The Last Airbender,” was found in 2014 on the ground, unable
to fly, in the North Topsail Beach area.
transporting her to Rocky Point Animal Hospital, about 15 miles
northwest of Wilmington, Gnyp determined that the weak and emaciated
bird was about 2 years old. Blood tests revealed that she was suffering
from zinc and lead poisoning. Eagles and other large birds of prey will
feed on carcasses of large animals that have been killed by lead shot.
Raptor Center’s mission is to rehabilitate injured raptors with the
goal of releasing them back in the wild. The center also provides
education and outreach to the public on the importance of preserving
raptors in the environment, and encourages hunters and fishers to stop
using lead shot and lead sinkers, respectively.
North Carolina, it is illegal to shoot waterfowl with lead shot, but it
is still permitted to hunt deer and other large prey with lead shot.
so dangerous,” Gnyp said, “not only for our wildlife, but for our
– named by Gnyp’s then 10-year-old – was nursed back to health by Gnyp
for the next two years. Finally, in January, the bird was banded with a
solar-powered GPS transmitter and released in Wilmington.
8-pound raptor made a beeline towards the Albemarle Sound near Aurora
and Bath, where she has spent most of her time, apparently feasting on
the catfish in the ponds near the reclaimed phosphate pits. But she has
also taken a jaunt to Williamsburg, Va., flying over Chesapeake and
Norfolk, before circling back to northeastern North Carolina.
winding flight paths can be observed on Movebank, an animal-tracking
database. The lightweight, 48-gram, GPS device updates her location
frequently and transmits every eight hours, which is compiled and
emailed once a week to researchers.
Movebank data showed, the eagle flew a total of about 65.5 miles in
the good news is, she’s going great,” Gnyp said. “Her movements are
very normal. She puts on a lot of mileage for a juvenile.”
of sick and injured eagles has been done for years, said Ted Simons, an
ecology professor at N.C. State University who is part of the team
testing the new GPS device. But the updated technology used to track
Yangchen will help pinpoint why they’re sick and injured, he said.
is a perilous existence,” he said. “They quite frequently show up
the raptors aren’t poisoned by toxins in the guts of their prey, they
are often shocked on power lines, where they land, stretch their vast
wings, and get zapped.
as a member of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Cooperative Fish and
Wildlife Research Unit, was involved years ago in the successful
national effort to rebuild the eagle population, which had been on the
brink of extinction. One of his roles was assisting in the release of
hundreds of eagles along the northern Gulf Coast.
a modern, high-tech version of bird-banding, GPS transmitter units have
evolved over the last 10 years or so
largely because of the widespread use of accelerometers
in cell phones, which made the sophisticated technology more affordable.
satellite technology provided a huge leap for animal researchers,
because it could record all kinds of data about the tagged animals’
environment, travels and habits. But the downside was that the data
would be contained in the tag, meaning that it had to be recovered to
get the data.
five years ago, tags similar to what Yangchen is wearing were developed
that can provide high-resolution mapping as the animal travels,
eliminating the need for possession of the device to access collected
has really revolutionized wildlife telemetry,” Simons said. “So we get
almost a real-time summary of a bird’s location.”
the past, he said, wildlife ecologists would go out in the field and
collect a set of “snapshots” of information and data. From that, they
would build a model from the bits of data and test it.
situation we’re in now, the animal can tell us,” Simons explained. “We
don’t have to extrapolate. We don’t have snapshots anymore. We have a
movie. We have a continuous record of how these birds are spending
their time and where they’re roosting.”
and Gnyp have also been working with Roland Kays, director of the
biodiversity lab in The Nature Research Center at the N.C. Museum of
Natural Sciences. Kays had contacted Simons about testing the new
transmitters, which cost about $3,000 to $5,000 each – in large birds
was the third try for the device – the first was a captive eagle, the
second died of an illness – and now the researchers have become
vicarious tourists, from the eagle perspective.
it wasn’t all smooth going. Suddenly, in mid-summer, there were no more
pings coming from Yangchen’s band. The mystery lasted for a couple
of weeks. Then she reappeared for about 10 days – and disappeared
again. For weeks, the team kept checking. Nothing.
were quite concerned,” Simons said. “It seemed like the likely
explanation was that the bird had died.”
knew her last location, but there was no sign of her body. Then about
six weeks ago, to everyone’s relief, the pings started coming again.
said that the team is guessing that the band was partly covered by
feathers and unable to transmit, or the solar cell battery temporarily
wasn’t getting enough charge.
a young eagle like Yangchen, Simons said, with such cutting-edge
technology will provide valuable new data for eagle researchers.
can zoom in on these locations,” he said. “You can actually see the
trees where the bird is roosting. It’s kind of mind-boggling how much
detail is available.”
said that young eagles act somewhat like gypsies in their meanderings,
going from place to place looking for food.
they mate, the flying around and seeking will stop. Eagles, which live
about 25 years, start pairing up at about age 5 or 6, but both male and
females mate to a territory rather than a particular eagle.
far, Yanchen’s travels are that of a healthy young bird getting ready
to settle down. “It’s smart movement,” Gnyp said. “She’s not wandering