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Duluth-banded eagle a tribute to troops

Gretchen McDaniel knew the odds were against her. The longtime Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory volunteer wanted to "adopt" a bald eagle in honor of her brother-in-law, who's serving at a Marine base in Afghanistan.

"I thought it would be a nice pick-me-up," said McDaniel, of Duluth. "And, of course, the symbolism of the eagle would be perfect."

To adopt a raptor, it first must be caught and banded at Hawk Ridge. More than 4,100 raptors have been banded at the ridge this fall, said Debbie Waters, education director at Hawk Ridge. But until Sunday, just three of them had been eagles.

"Eagles are always more difficult to catch," Waters said. "They're more wary and more skilled as hunters."

On Saturday, McDaniel brought a homemade sign to the ridge offering thanks for the service of her brother-in-law and others at "Camp Leatherneck," where he's stationed in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Lt. Cmdr. Stephen Coates of Camp Lejeune is a Navy chaplain attached to the Marine base. McDaniel took the sign to Hawk Ridge just in case the banding station captured another eagle this fall.

On Sunday, a day off from her Hawk Ridge duties, McDaniel visited the ridge. While she was there, the banding station captured its first mature bald eagle in the 40-year banding history of Hawk Ridge. Previously, only immature eagles had been caught.

"I was shaking. I was nervous," McDaniel said after learning that a bald eagle had been banded. "Then I found out it was an adult. It just seemed like everything came together and it was meant to be."

Only mature bald eagles have white heads and white tails. They get their white feathers in their fourth or fifth year. This was a fourth-year bird, Waters said.

McDaniel paid $200 to adopt the eagle. That's the highest adoption fee for a raptor at Hawk Ridge. Sharp-shinned hawks, the most commonly caught and banded, can be adopted for $25. Adoption fees go up from there.

By adopting a raptor, the adopter gets the immediate satisfaction of donating to Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, a nonprofit group. In addition, if that raptor is ever captured or found later, the adopter will be notified.

McDaniel has volunteered at Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory in Duluth since 2003. This year, she is also paid to process all of the adoptions. The number of birds banded at Hawk Ridge is up dramatically this fall, and so are adoptions. Through Oct. 14, a total of 534 raptors had been adopted, 288 of them sharp-shinned hawks.

Frank Nicoletti is the director of banding at Hawk Ridge. This is his first year in that position. Banding is done at three stations this year, up from one station in past years.

Raptors are trapped in nets when they're attracted to live lure birds such as pigeons and starlings, which are tethered on the ground. The raptors are caught before they reach the lure birds.

McDaniel said Coates has completed about half of his 13-month tour of duty in Afghanistan.

"Everything they're doing over there is hard," McDaniel said. "They miss their families, and the second half (of their tours) is even harder. Time goes slower."

She hasn't told Coates about the adoption yet but plans to e-mail him soon.

The release of the eagle was a thrill, said McDaniel, who has released many other large raptors at Hawk Ridge.

"I felt very honored," she said. "I was holding the first adult bald eagle that Hawk Ridge had ever banded, and I was adopting it in my brother-in-law's name along with everyone else he works with."