SHELBY TOWNSHIP — While a Stony Creek Metropark bald eagle’s entrapment in fishing line prompted the first shoreline cleanup of its kind, the firsthand story of the eagle’s struggle has, until now, been unheard.
At around 11 a.m. Sept. 11, Bruce Mattei, of Shelby Township, said he was paddling his kayak around Winter Island in Stony Creek Lake when he encountered the female bald eagle that lives in the metropark. The whole ordeal took about two and a half hours, he estimated.
“I noticed some white fluff, like from the chest of a bird, so I drifted over to it very carefully. I got maybe three feet from the shore. It looked like a dead swan or something,” he said, though it turned out to be just feathers. “Then, all of a sudden to my right, this eagle comes charging out of a tree.”
He said the experience was vivid — that the eagle’s talons were straight out and as big as his hand; he could see its bright yellow beak.
“I put the paddle up, and he got within, I would say, five feet in front of the kayak and then fell straight down into the water at a 90-degree angle,” Mattei said, adding that he thought he was going to get seriously injured.
He said the bird was flapping its wings and looked like it was drowning, although no noise came out of its beak. Then, the bird managed to flop toward a fallen tree and use its beak to clamber onto it.
Mattei said he became curious and paddled around to the other side of the bird. The eagle attempted to take off at a 45-degree angle, got about the same distance and fell back into the water.
“When he got back up, I could clearly see on his left leg a reddish orange band around his ankle and, on his right leg, all fishing line,” he said.
He said the fishing line tangled around the eagle’s leg prevented it from flying away.
Mattei said he called his wife to get the park’s office phone number, and a ranger showed up almost immediately at the boat rental — the area closest to the island. In the meantime, he said the eagle attempted to fly away again with the same results.
When Mattei paddled back, he said the eagle stayed on the log and looked him in the eye. He said when he was there, the eagle stayed on the log, and when he paddled away, the eagle took flight again. Mattei said he paddled back and forth four or five times while the rangers attempted to pull a row boat out of the muck. Then, staff from the nature center drove down with a canoe.
“It’s one thing seeing an eagle at the zoo. It’s another seeing him in his natural environment,” Mattei said. “They are so mighty, just gigantic birds. They have an extremely powerful presence. … He was extremely intelligent and aware.”
Mattei said that despite the bird trying to “take his head off,” he felt sorry that it could not get out from the fishing line and was causing more damage to itself than anything else.
When nature center staff came to the boat rental with the canoe, Mattei said the eagle had managed to free itself and was perched in a tree on the island. He said the three of them searched the ground and water for the fishing line but could not locate it, so he assumed it was still attached to the bird’s leg.
“I was never an eagle watcher before, but now I’m very much aware that they’re there,” he said, adding that he enjoys fishing but makes sure that he throws away his fishing line
Ruth Glass, the nature center’s volunteer bird expert, said that the female bald eagle has been spotted as recently as a week ago and that she is definitely injured, but she is eating and seems to be faring well.
“She’s not frequenting the lake as much as she used to,” Glass said, adding that it might be because of her bad experience. “There are fresh sticks and fresh activity at the nest.”
Stony Creek Metropark is host to an eagle family, made up of the female eagle, her second mate — her first mate perished when he flew into power lines — and their juvenile eagle that was born in the spring.
Glass added that the Clinton River Watershed Council will conduct a follow-up shoreline cleanup in November. As a result of the first cleanup, they may have identified some Eagle Scouts willing to build and install fishing line receptacles at fishing areas as their Eagle project.
For more information about the eagle, the importance of properly disposing of fishing line or to find out more information about the next cleanup, call the Stony Creek Nature Center at (586) 781-9113.
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