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Taking flight – Bonner County Daily Bee

Jane Veltkamp watches after releasing a bald eagle at Birds of Prey Northwest near St. Maries on Wednesday.
A bald eagle flies in the aviary at Birds of Prey Northwest.
Jane Veltkamp holds “Fighting Creek” before releasing it Wednesday.
A bald eagle flies away at Birds of Prey Northwest on Wednesday.
Don Veltkamp holds a bald eagle before letting it go in the aviary at Birds of Prey Northwest on Wednesday.
A young bald eagle flies in the new exercise flight-run aviary at Birds of Prey Northwest on Wednesday.
Keaton Buell releases a bald eagle named “Mica” in the new eagle exercise aviary at Birds of Prey Northwest on Wednesday.
A bald eagle peeks out from its crate at Birds of Prey Northwest on Wednesday. The eagle was injured when it was struck by a car near Oldtown earlier this week.
ST. MARIES — When Don Veltkamp released a rehabilitated bald eagle named Mica on Wednesday, it flew low to the ground, went about 125 feet, and stopped.
When Keaton Buell let an immature bald eagle fly free a minute later, it followed suit.
Both birds did what Jane Veltkamp expected — and wanted — to see.
“It proved they’re not physically fit yet to be released. That’s the benefit of this kind of thing,” said the executive director and founder of Birds of Prey Northwest.
For the first time, with about 15 people watching, raptors were released into the eagle exercise flight aviary at the nonprofit near St. Maries.
The facility, 10 years in the making, is 125 feet long, 25 feet high and 33 feet wide. It has special netting and steel trusses.
Don Veltkamp said they tried several roof types for the aviary over the years, but they collapsed under the weight of snow.
This one didn’t.
Regal, the younger eagle, and Mica, will spend about two weeks testing their wings, eating salmon and regaining their strength.
After two weeks, a drop-down door, about 8 feet by 10 feet, will be opened, offering freedom just beyond.
“You lower the door, and you don’t stress them,” Don Veltkamp said. “They’ll fly when they’re ready to fly.”
“You don’t want to spook a bird,” Jane Veltkamp added. “You want it to go gracefully.”
Regal was found near the Spokane River, on the Idaho side of the border, with a shoulder injury.
It is believed Mica was struck by a vehicle in the Mica Bay area. When the Veltkamps picked it up about three months ago, it weighed 7 pounds and was near death.
Under the care of Birds of Prey Northwest, it now weighs 14 pounds and has redeveloped atrophied muscles.
“She needed to build back up,” Jane Veltkamp said.
Buell, a raptor technician at Birds of Prey Northwest, said it was a wonderful moment when Mica left his hands.
“We’ve been waiting for this for almost 10 years,” he said. “To see them fly in the aviary is butterflies in my heart.”
Buell said he poured “blood, sweat and tears” into the project.
“I don’t think I’ve ever put as much manual labor into one single thing,” he said.
Another eagle dubbed Fighting Creek was released into the wild by Jane Veltkamp. She said it likely was poisoned when it ate part of a euthanized animal at the Fighting Creek landfill.
After flushing the eagle’s system with liquids over the past week or so, it was ready to be on its own. It first flew to a tree as the small crowd watched in admiration. A few minutes later, it soared away, perhaps back to its home on the southern end of Lake Coeur d’Alene.
Jane Veltkamp, a raptor biologist, said it was rewarding to see all three eagles in the air.
“That’s why we do the work we do,” she said.
About half the raptors that come to Birds of Prey Northwest recover. The others are either euthanized or die, their injuries too severe.
While each raptor death hurts, Veltkamp said it’s important to focus on the victories, on those that are rehabilitated and released into the wild.
“They needed our help, they got our help, and we’re happy to be here to provide the help,” she said.
Saving eagles is expensive. It costs thousands of dollars to rehab each eagle, with treatment that includes blood draws, X-rays and medications.
The annual food bill for the raptors at Birds of Prey Northwest is about $40,000.
“We don’t get paid money for what we do, but we get paid when we see that,” said Don Veltkamp, Birds of Prey Northwest board chairman.
The organization relies on donations to continue its work that began 33 years ago.
Since, they have treated and released thousands of raptors including bald eagles, peregrine falcons and osprey.
“How gratifying is it to do all that and see what you saw today?” Jane Veltkamp said.
She said they love teaching youth about what they do.
“We’re an education center that happens to rehabilitate,” Jane Veltkamp said.
Ten-year-old Lilly Barnes of St. Maries is the youngest volunteer with Birds of Prey.
“I like it because I like birds,” she said.
Raptors like bald eagles and peregrine falcons were once critically endangered due to being shot, poisoned, struck by cars and electrocuted.
Since the insecticide DDT was banned in 1972, the majestic birds have recovered and today, there are estimated to be between 500 to 800 bald eagles in Idaho and more than 300,000 nationwide.
“They’ve made a remarkable comeback,” Jane Veltkamp said.
The Veltkamps picked up two bald eagles this week, a younger one found in the Sandpoint area, starving with most of its wing feathers missing. It weighed 6 pounds and should be double that.
The other, an older male, was hit by a car in the Oldtown area. Fortunately, it had no broken bones and could be back on its way within a few weeks. It peered out when Don Veltkamp opened its crate door so media could see it.
“He got his bell rung pretty bad,” Don Veltkamp said.
Laurie Brunette is with the Women’s Gift Alliance that awarded a $5,000 grant to Birds of Prey Northwest last year.
She said the Veltkamps are inspiring with their passion. What they do, she said, “gives me great joy.”
Teriann Poutre, Birds of Prey Northwest board member, was emotional as she watched the release of the eagles.
“I cry like a baby because they get to go free,” she said. “It just shows the hard work and everything that goes in to it. It’s just amazing.”
Info: birdsofpreynorthwest.org and 208-245-1367
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A bald eagle peeks out from its crate at Birds of Prey Northwest on Wednesday. The eagle was injured when it was struck by a car near Oldtown earlier this week.
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BILL BULEY/Press
Keaton Buell releases a bald eagle named “Mica” in the new eagle exercise aviary at Birds of Prey Northwest on Wednesday.
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BILL BULEY/Press
A young bald eagle flies in the new exercise flight-run aviary at Birds of Prey Northwest on Wednesday.
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BILL BULEY/Press
Don Veltkamp holds a bald eagle before letting it go in the aviary at Birds of Prey Northwest on Wednesday.
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BILL BULEY/Press
A bald eagle flies away at Birds of Prey Northwest on Wednesday.
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Jane Veltkamp holds “Fighting Creek” before releasing it Wednesday.
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A bald eagle flies in the aviary at Birds of Prey Northwest.
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