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Fit and flying free: Harley the bald eagle recovered and released

A fully recovered Harley the bald eagle was released Saturday, Jan. 30, as a crowd of 200 to 250 people cheered on a hillside overlooking the St. Croix River near Hastings.

"The energy of the crowd, it was so exciting," said Julia Ponder, director of the University of Minnesota Raptor Center, which nursed the male eagle back to health. "The eagle just powered away, strong from the first flap."

Fittingly, the eagle was released by Harley-Davidson motorcyclist Brian Baladez of Cloquet, who found and rescued the injured bird along Douglas County Highway T near Wascott, Wis., last summer.

When Baladez tossed the eagle in the air, "every flap was just magnificent," Ponder said.

"I have rarely seen a man so thrilled, so impressed," Ponder said of Baladez, who couldn't be reached for comment. "He was just excited through every fiber in his body. When the bird took off, he [Baladez] let out a spontaneous yell that the crowd picked up on. He was just thrilled. It was a very moving experience for him."

The eagle headed toward the river, then veered north, landing in trees.

"It was quite a flight before he landed," Ponder said. "He will be fine. He's an adult. He'll be hunting very quickly."

The GPS transmitter Harley carries will allow researchers to follow his movements and learn more about eagle behavior.

The eagle was released at Carpenter St. Croix Valley Nature Center in Hastings, Minn., because many Northland eagles spend the winter there along the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers. A couple of miles away from the release site is open water, where about 40 eagles were counted Saturday afternoon, Ponder said.

"He'll probably go there, then eventually north to breeding territory," she said, adding that eagles breed in March and April.

When Baladez found the ailing bird along the road Aug. 3, it appeared injured and disoriented and was unable to fly. Using his leather jacket, he captured the bird and secured it to the saddle bags of his motorcycle with a bungee cord and drove 50 miles to Duluth. Eventually Harley -- named after the motorcycle -- was taken to the Raptor Center in St. Paul.

It had a broken wing and lead poisoning, a growing problem from eagles feeding on carcasses containing lead, Ponder said. Thirty-five percent of the more than 100 eagles brought into the Raptor Center in the last year had lead poisoning.

Harley probably had been on ground for a couple of weeks, judging from healing that had occurred with the fracture, Ponder said. Harley was treated for lead poisoning, then underwent surgery to set the wing properly. Once the wing healed, staff worked with Harley to build endurance, strength and flight skill before Saturday's release.

Harley went from helpless to strong, with a 30 percent weight gain that Ponder described as "pure muscle."

"It's what we live for, it's what we do, it's just truly amazing," she said of the successful release. "This one was so strong. He was ready to go."