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Boyd Hill Nature Preserve preparing eagle as avian ambassador

ST. PETERSBURG

They are trying to teach Abiaka to live up to his name. When the Southern bald eagle arrived at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve this summer, volunteers named him after a 19th century Seminole teacher who lived in the Everglades.

Park volunteers Gabe Vargo and Cindy Eisenhauer are training him to eat off a glove and stay calm around strangers.

They want this flightless bird to join their team of environmental educators who teach at events and in classrooms. Not just Vargo and Eisenhauer, but Turk and Pugsley the turkey vultures, Dancer the red-tailed hawk, and Hoo2 the great horned owl.

Not quite a year old, Abiaka is the newest resident of the park's bird sanctuary, where about a dozen permanently injured birds of prey live.

• • •

On one recent morning, Vargo walks into the aviary with a pouch full of rodent parts.

"Is somebody ready for breakfast?" he asks, opening the screen door. The juvenile eagle makes eye contact. With the steadiness of a tai chi practitioner, Vargo steps silently across the sandy floor.

The eagle's outer brown feathers seem lightly dabbed with a white paintbrush. His brown eyes are outlined in white. His brown head won't turn white for another five years.

On Vargo's left arm is a gauntlet, a dark brown, three-layered leather glove as thick as a quarter-inch in some places, that he offers as a feeding perch. Between his thumb and forefinger is a choice mouse piece. He taps his left forearm with his right hand. The 6-pound bird cranes his neck down to the glove as Vargo encourages him. Then he suddenly backs off with an audible flap of his 6-foot wingspan, showing off his powerful talons.

• • •

Back in March, he may have been flapping his wings in an effort to fly when he fell from his 60-foot-high nest in a dead slash pine. Or the spring storm may have blown him out.

Early that morning, park biologist Dan Larremore walked the trails at Honeymoon Island State Park in Dunedin in the pouring rain to check on the nests of 24 ospreys and one eagle. He spotted the 9-week-old eaglet under a bush.

"He was soaked through to the feathers," said Larremore. "To see him on the ground was pretty sad."

Larremore used work gloves and a beach towel to gently scoop him up and put him on his truck's front seat.

The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary bandaged his wing with its torn tendons and transferred him to the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey north of Orlando. There, Vargo started working with Abiaka.

The center gets about 60 eagles a year, but only one out of 120 fit the criteria to become trainable: young, prefledgling, never lived in the wild, flightless.

He had a good demeanor and would have to be raised in captivity, a perfect candidate for an avian ambassador.

• • •

A sign asking visitors to stay behind the railing and keep the noise down hangs from 20-by-20-by-10 fenced-in quarters, mostly covered by a thin bamboo reed curtain for privacy.

Some days, volunteers stand outside Abiaka's home and converse, just to get him used to visitors.

But for now he sits on Vargo's quivering arm munching on mouse morsels. After hopping back to his perch, he moves his head rapidly in lizardlike jerks, signaling discomfort. Perhaps from the visiting reporter and the click of the camera. "It's okay," Vargo assures him. "Take it easy."

Then the trainer folds his arms and leaves, ending the lesson.

Vargo, 68, learned falconry during his college days in Miami, where he earned degrees in botany. After earning his doctorate at the University of Rhode Island, he taught at the College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

In 1987 he started volunteering with birds. He was the primary caretaker of Spirit, the preserve's 27-year-old bald eagle that died last year.

"(Abiaka's) still not totally calm," says Vargo. "He gets upset if there's something new or if there's too much noise."

But he is making progress, and within two years they hope to take Abiaka to schools and summer camps like the neighboring red-headed turkey vultures, red-tailed and white-shouldered hawks and the owls.

Eisenhauer says bringing birds into the classrooms is important so that kids can learn to appreciate the natural world around them. "Some kids don't even know where eggs come from," she says.

Vargo agrees. "We need to show them what else is out there besides concrete and McDonald's."

FAST FACTS

A powerful Florida presence

• Florida has more bald eagles than any other state except Alaska. More than 1,200 breeding pairs have active nests throughout Florida. After decades of mortality due to collisions with cars, electrocutions, poisonings and shootings, the eagle population has rebounded to between 3,000 and 4,000 birds statewide.

• The bald eagle, listed as a threatened species, is the fastest-growing bird in North America. It weighs 4 ounces at birth and can gain 6 ounces a day. At 3 months old, the juvenile can weigh up to 12 pounds.

• Bald eagles can live 30 to 40 years in the wild and over 50 years in captivity. They build the largest nest of any North American bird. One Florida nest measured 9 feet across and weighed 2 tons. Eagles mate for life and usually return to the same nest each year.

• Bald eagles are opportunistic feeders. They eat fish primarily, but are often seen on the side of the road feasting on road-killed animals.

Source: audubonofflorida.org/friendsoftheeagle/facts.html

Boyd Hill Nature Preserve preparing eagle as avian ambassador 12/18/10 [Last modified: Saturday, December 18, 2010 3:30am]

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