SNEADS FERRY | Apprehension and anxiety marked the release of a captive bald eagle at North Shore Country Club in Sneads Ferry — for the humans and the young bird.
“I would rank it as a little bit heart-stopping for me,” said Dr. Joni Gnyp, founder of Cape Fear Raptor Center. “He was told to fly off hard ... but they’re wild animals. They don’t talk to us. So I can’t tell him what to do.”
For the first time since he was found in Sneads Ferry in April, the 2-year-old bald eagle named Aang was free to wander in his natural habitat. Aang was released about 10:15 a.m. July 6 in front of a crowd of more than 100 people standing near the course’s 18th green at the country club.
Among those in attendance was Vince Gable of Charleston, South Carolina.
Gable was visiting family in Onslow County for the Fourth of July weekend and wanted his young daughter to see the eagle’s release to show her the importance of caring for the environment.
“It’s pretty cool to come down here and see something like this happen, especially on a Fourth of July weekend,” Gable said. “I wanted to bring my daughter out here because we want to keep her ... into thinking about things of nature and putting back into the planet.”
When Aang came to the Cape Fear Raptor Center in Rocky Point, Gnyp said the bird was unable to lift his head because of severe lead poisoning, the origin of which is uncertain. She said it is possible the eagle became sick after eating lead shotgun pellets in an animal carcass.
Although their diet primarily consists of fish, Gnyp said bald eagles also are scavengers.
“Their favorite food is deer, which are large carcasses,” Gnyp said. “They’re usually shot by a hunter, wounded, then ran off ... So they sit out in the woods where the vultures and eagles find them. ... (The birds) also find the lead that’s found in them.”
Gnyp said that hunters often are great conservationists but added that she wishes ammunition manufacturers could find a more eco-friendly product.
“If we could somehow get some ammunition that served the purpose of the hunters and the game they’re trying to hunt that was lead-free, it would take this whole equation out of existence,” Gnyp said.
Aang was found by members of Possumwood Acres Wildlife Sanctuary in Hubert and brought to the raptor center for care.
Tonya Weil of Richlands works at Possumwood Acres and she attended the eagle’s release.
“You don’t get to see a bald eagle every day, and you certainly don’t get to see one being released every day,” Weil said. “I’m still worried about him because he won’t leave, but I’m very excited that he’s got his freedom back.”
Aang is named after the main character from the “Avatar: The Last Airbender” television series. The first minutes after the bird’s release on the golf course, he flew over a water hazard, chased a flock of geese into the water and sat near the green, next to his former caretakers.
Members of the raptor center spent the next few minutes trying to coax Aang into flying into the trees and starting his new life. Gnyp said Aang was found after he left the nest and learned how to fend for himself but has been fed by caretakers for the past three months. Gnyp said that Aang is in shape to fly and has done so numerous times at the raptor center.
“He is used to me as his source of food,” Gnyp said. “He doesn’t look to me to get any sort of camaraderie or relationship other than I’m his fish source. He’s dependent on me to feed him for the last three months.”
Aang is still a young eagle and won’t receive the iconic white plumage on his head for another 2 to 3 years, but Gnyp said she expects Aang to be fine.
She does not expect to see him ever again.
“It’s amazing how quickly they revert back to the wild,” Gnyp said
An app available from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences allows users to track wildlife via a small backpack. Aang is carrying such a tracking device.
For more information about tracking the young eagle and other animals, visit Movebank.org.