By Brad Thompson, images by Melanie Hunt Streeter
The American Bald Eagle has become a very big part of life in Allegany County. In the Wellsville area, more and more locals have some amazing bald eagle experiences and sightings. This story by the former Mayor of the village of Wellsville, and recently elected justice of the peace is extraordinary.
Part of the extraordinary is that the eagle in this story is almost certainly the same eagle that has been featured in our ongoing saga of the bald eagle nest in Willing NY. That nest was destroyed by a storm in June of 2021 and we just reported that the pair as already started to rebuild the nest site.
Be sure to read the epilogue to this mini-drama and learn about Brad Thompson’s other connection to the bald eagle!!
“December 9th, 2017 at approximately 4:00 PM first sighting. Total time for rescue 2 1/2 hours
I was walking my dog Zorro with my grandson Cameron Dunlap On the WAG trail. We started at the Jack Bridge entrance point and began walking back towards the Village of Wellsville. About 1/4 mile to possibly 1/3 of a mile up the trail my grandson asks me “Papa what’s that noise “.
I hadn’t heard anything, so I stopped and listened, and I now hear the sound of chains rattling. We walked another 500 to 1000 feet up the trail to see if we could figure out what was making that rattling noise. Sometime through the years, the river had forked at this location and one fork went one way the other fork went the other way and then rejoined at the other end forming an island in the middle of the river. It was beginning to get a little bit dark, but you could still see pretty well over to the island as we got closer to the sound of the rattling chains, I could see a Whitehead sticking up above the goldenrod on the island.
I turned to my grandson and said that’s a bald eagle over there not knowing what was going on for sure, I thought maybe the eagle had killed something and was eating it. As we stood there and watched I could see the eagle try to fly and that rattling sound was very prevalent. Although I couldn’t see what was rattling. Then it dawned on me what that rattle was: That eagle was stuck in spring traps meant to trap other animals. After contemplating what to do, my grandson and I headed back to the road where my truck was. In the meantime, I had called my granddaughter Taylor Roulo to come get Zorro and to bring me some boots and some rescue gear.
I knew that I was going to have to cross that river to get to that island and I wasn’t sure how deep the river was. It didn’t look very deep but again it was getting dark, and it was hard to see the bottom of the river. The only thing I knew for sure is that I was not going to leave that eagle trapped on that island without trying to rescue it. At that time there were no DEC agents available in the area.
After getting back to my truck I met my granddaughter and handed Zorro off so she could take him home and gather the items I thought I needed to rescue the Eagle and made my way back down the trail.
News travels fast and my daughter Mandy Thompson, Jeremy Wyatt, Kelly Williams and Eric Yurcic joined Cameron and I, Taylor rejoined us after dropping off Zorro. We all made our way back down to where the Eagle was.
The only boots I had were muck boots and I didn’t know if they would be high enough to keep my feet dry. By this time it was dark and all you could hear was the rattling of the chains and some slight movement of the Eagles white head moving around. The riverbank had been eaten out and it was fairly steep, but I did finally find a spot where I could slide down an attempt to cross the river. Fortunately, the river was not moving very fast and I was aware that I may fall into the river, so I left my cell phone in my truck.
My grandson desperately wanted to go with me, but I was not willing to take that chance for him to get hurt. I told everybody that I was going to make it over and investigate this situation and for everybody else to wait on the WAG trail.
I slowly and cautiously made my way across the river making sure that I had secure footing, the bottom of the river has many slippery rocks. The boots that I had on were sufficient so that the water was not over them until I got to the other side and as I got closer to the bank of the island, there was a deep hole that I was not aware of and could not see. The bottom line, feet got wet, and at that point there was no stopping needed to assess what was going on with the Eagle.
I made my way up the bank slowly cautiously approached the eagle to try and not make him too nervous. As I got closer, I could see that both of his talons were snared in two separate spring traps. The spring traps were attached to a dead deer carcass. My assumption at the time was somebody was probably trying to trap coyotes and was using the dead deer as bait. I Needed to figure out a plan to get traps off the Eagles legs. The Eagle was in pretty good shape and I didn’t see any blood except on his beak and I think that’s where had been eating the deer for survival because he had devoured a nice little chunk of the rear end of that deer.
I had brought a blanket over with me thinking that maybe I could throw the blanket over the eagle to keep him calm. I discovered quickly that that was not going to work. She was not having any part of that at all. I knew that this Eagle could be very dangerous to me it could hurt me if I was not careful. You don’t realize how big those birds are until you’re standing (or sitting) next to one.
The blanket idea being a failure, I decided to try and just sit down and talk to the eagle like you would talk to a person and get her to calm down and get used to me being there. I probably sat there for 10 to 15 minutes just talking to the eagle like she was a person that understood me. I know that sounds crazy but believe it or not she did calm down and stop trying to get away from me. The whole time I was sitting there I was assessing how I was going to get the spring traps off the eagle without the eagle hurting me.
I moved slowly towards the first trap that the talon was in, stood up slowly place my foot on the trap opening that wrap up. I had picked a stick from the ground place it in the trap to keep it open and the Eagle pulled her talon and out on its own. At that point was not sure if the talon had been damaged and if she could still use it or not it, but now it was now free. My attention then went to freeing the other talon. Before I could do that, I reached down to move the trap that I had just freed from her leg out of the way, and I found out quickly, but that talon was not damaged.
In the blink of an eye that eagle grabbed my hand which fortunately I had a heavy glove on and held on. She did not try to attack my hand or me but rather just held on to my hand. Not sure, but probably thinking, you’re not going anywhere until you get my other talon out. That did present some problems as I only had one hand, so I let my Team on the other side of the river, that I needed some assistance. Mandy, Jeremy, and Eric started their journey across the river to help me.
At this point in the mission I’m still talking to the eagle like it’s a person and keeping her fairly calm. When those three reached me, we formulated a similar plan having them open the trap and shove a stick in to free the other talent while the eagle was preoccupied with my hand. Just before we attempted to free the other talon from the trap, I slipped my hand out of my glove and just left my hand sitting on the ground next to the glove as the eagle hung on to my glove.
We put operation free the eagle Part 2 into motion: To open the trap, shoved the stick in the trap and waited. This time she didn’t immediately pull her talon out probably because there were more people around and she was a little worried about that. It seemed like an eternity, but it was probably only a few seconds and she realized that she was free. She pulled her talon out and immediately took to the air. As she was taking off, she released my glove. I still have those gloves today. She flew away that day didn’t seem to be harmed too bad.
You may ask, why wait four years to tell the story? The goal of rescuing the eagle was not to be famous or get attention for something anyone would have done; but rather to free a American Bald Eagle back into the wild so that it could continue to reproduce. As I read the story last summer about the nest being destroyed by the storm, and today the story of them rebuilding a new nest showed me how resilient the Bald Eagle is. (I am sure that it is the same Eagle because the nest is in the same area). With everything that is happening in America today, I believe that we as Americans are as resilient is that pair of bald Eagles that makes their home on the Genesee River.
Last you may ask where all the pictures are? There are only a couple of pictures that I took before I crossed over the river. Not one of us that crossed the river with a phone or a camera to take pictures as that was not the goal. The goal of the mission was to give that Bald Eagle a chance to live. It was a very satisfying experience for all that were involved and helped rescue a symbol of American strength. I did not always walk that part of the WAG trail but for some reason that day we did. I am honored to have been able to help “MY” Eagle to survive.”
Thompson’s connection to the American Bald Eagle wasn’t isolated, he was already a big fan and his profession included “eagle work.” As an instructor at Alfred State College, Thompson explains he was part of an eagle nesting site project in Washington DC :
“6 students and 3 instructors built a mobile solar unit to power cameras and microphones at a nest at the National Arboretum in DC a few years before my encounter. Below is the YouTube – DC Eagle link and you can see the nest. The camera system is still working today, I was one of the three instructors.”