A juvenile bald eagle that was discovered tangled in fishing line in late July and required surgery to remove a fish hook from its throat, returned to the wild this past weekend at New Melones.

The hunting bird, a young predator with a sharp, hooked beak, curved talons and a 5-foot wingspan, took its first free flight in four weeks about 11 a.m. Saturday.

Pat Benik, a volunteer with Tri County Wildlife Care who helped the eagle recover in Amador County, brought the bird in a pet carrier to the New Melones Visitors Center. Helpers set the caged bird on a platform. Benik opened the door and held a finger near the back of the cage to urge the bird out.

The fierce expression in the hunter’s eyes remained fixed. The eagle jumped and spread its wings. Hazy sunlight glinted off its individual brown and white feathers. The bird glided a few yards and settled on a sloping field of dried grass momentarily.

Onlookers, including rangers and other volunteers, called out softly to the bird. It looked around, leapt into the air again, beat its wings several times and caught a slight updraft downslope. It glided over a maintenance yard down the hill and flew toward a stand of oaks near the edge of the reservoir.

In the trees

People cheered when the eagle made it to the trees and appeared to settle in one of them, within view of the water.

“She’ll stay here as long as there’s enough food,” Benik said. Benik believes the juvenile bald eagle is female and it’s 2 to 3 years old. Bald eagles typically reach full maturity, with white head and tail feathers, at 5 years.

Two wildlife volunteers from Angels Camp, Elissa and Mark Wall, who helped rescue the eagle back on July 29, dumped out a sack of discarded fishing line, fish hooks and fishing pole parts they said they gathered near Glory Hole and Angels Creek at New Melones.

The Walls emphasized they fish and they are not trying to demonize people who fish. They said they displayed the discarded fishing line and hooks because it’s important to clean up whatever can be gathered, to reduce chances of endangering predatory birds and other waterfowl at New Melones.

“If people could pick up behind themselves and others, and not leave fishing line, lures and hooks, it will be safer for birds like this eagle,” Elissa Wall said. “We know fishing line can break. That’s why it’s important to clean up what we can.”

Unable to fly, eat or drink

A month ago the young eagle was tangled in line with a fish hook down its throat, pinned down and in distress when kayakers spotted the bird at New Melones, said Pat Sanders, a natural resources ranger employed by the Bureau of Reclamation.

Sanders and another ranger took a boat to search the shoreline near Mark Twain Day Use Area, a fishing and swimming spot on the Tuolumne County side, within view of the Highway 49 Stevenot Bridge.

The young eagle was barely visible against rocks on the shore, but the rangers found it and saw there was a piece of fish line coming out the side of its beak, Sanders said in a report. The line was wedged between two rocks, so it could not fly, eat or drink, due to the tautness of the fishing line.

The bird looked very thin, Sanders said. She put on gloves, used her left hand to break the fishing line from the rocks and secured the young eagle’s legs and talons. She then gently lifted the bird, climbed back into the boat and placed the eagle in a very large pet carrier.

The rangers took the eagle and their boat to the launch ramp at Angels Creek and met the Walls, who were called out because they live nearby. The Walls transported the young eagle to Tri County Wildlife Care in Jackson, and the bird underwent surgery the next day.

Sanders said the young eagle was initially placed on pain medications and antibiotics after surgery.

Recovery and release

“I’m guessing she swallowed a fish that was hooked,” Benik said Saturday. Benik and Susan Manning with Tri County Wildlife Care said fishermen and others helped feed the bird through its month-long recovery.

They donated close to 50 fresh-caught fish and store-bought fish to help the young eagle recover, Manning said. Some days the recovering raptor ate one big fish, cut in two pieces. Other days it ate two smaller fish.

Benik said the eagle lost a lot of weight but it gained strength before its release. Benik said she kept the eagle in an outdoors aviary cage with room for the raptor to move around.

Benik said she tried to keep herself out of the picture for the eagle’s release. She hoped to allow the eagle to do whatever it wanted to do once Benik opened the cage door. She did not want to surprise, shock or scare the eagle.

“I wanted her to go out as softly as possible,” Benik said. “The least amount of stress we give the bird, the better. A nice, gentle release.”

Benik said raptors and other wild birds that have to spend time in captivity often get depressed and do not eat enough. Benik said she hopes a stress-free release for the recovering eagle will increase its odds of surviving its transition back to the wild at New Melones, and wherever else it may venture.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.