Freedom is in the air.
Beamer, a golden eagle, strains against Dave Siddon's grasp Thursday as the director of Wildlife Images Rehabilitation and Education Center in Grants Pass walks the young raptor to the edge of Woodrat Mountain.
"Are you ready to go?" Siddon asks.
Smiling, the silver-haired man opens his gauntlet-covered arms, releasing the immature eagle back into the grass-green valley where it was born in the spring of 2012.
"Our goal is to release animals and birds of prey like Beamer as close to the places that they were originally found," Siddon says. "The greatest chance of success for their integration back into the wild is to bring them home."
Beamer was named after Todd Morgan Beamer, a passenger aboard one of the hijacked 9/11 flights. Beamer and others attempted to foil the attack and reclaim the aircraft, which crashed into a Pennsylvania field. Beamer's last words are reported to have been, "OK, let's roll."
The first year or two is very difficult for young birds of prey. The attrition rate is high as the immature raptors struggle to find adequate food, particularly during the winter months, says Wildlife Images clinic supervisor Tracy Higgs.
"These young birds can have what we call 'a failure to thrive,' " Higgs says.
Discovered weak, starving and with a puncture wound to his leg, along a road near Williams on June 23, the young eagle was rescued by compassionate passers-by and taken to Wildlife Images for a second chance, she says.
"(Beamer) had clearly struggled to make it through that first winter," Higgs says. "He was borderline emaciated and very weak."
But over the past 21/2 months, Higgs and her staff managed to bring the big bird back to full health with the help of antibiotics and a progression diet, she says.
"First we gave him fluid therapy," she says, adding the liquid diet helped "reboot" Beamer's digestive system.
"A lot of people think if they see a hungry animal they should just feed it. But that can kill a bird. We had to slowly reintroduce food," she says.
Beamer moved to solid food, consuming deceased rats, quail and other small animals, she says.
"He was eating whole prey," Higgs says, adding golden eagles typically hunt for small mammals such as rabbits and squirrels.
As he gained strength and stamina, it was time for flying lessons and relearning how to make a "live kill," Higgs says.
Higgs and her crew attached leather jesses to the bird's legs. Using a 250-foot-long flight tether, they tested his flying abilities.
"It's a way for us to monitor and keep a hold of him while we build up his strength," Higgs says.
Weighing in at about 9 pounds, and with an almost 6-foot wingspan, Beamer was successfully killing live rats and was ready to be released a few weeks ago. But an injury to his foot delayed his departure date, she says.
"We had to make sure that was healed," Higgs says. "If they lose their feet, that's their tool to hunt."
Beamer's foot healed quickly, and not a moment too soon, as the "feisty" bird began letting everyone know he was ready for his freedom.
"He wants to fly," she says. "He wants to soar."
Back on Woodrat Mountain, Siddon smiles as he lowers his arms. Beamer is free. His massive wings carry him into an updraft. Slow, powerful strokes carry the bird toward a stand of pines. But Beamer doesn't land. He rises higher into an arching curve that takes him around the top of the mountain. The big bird slices his way through summer breezes, then dips down into the canyon and out of sight.
"That was about as perfect a release as you can hope for," Siddon says.
Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or firstname.lastname@example.org.