April 27, 2018

Beauty treatment for first-class travel

A gannet, steel-blue eye and yellow wash to its gleaming white plumage, wrestled with a giant fish it had caught out on the Derwent.

All was not going well for the gannet. Not only was the fish extra-large, but the activity on the water had attracted the attention of a white-bellied sea-eagle.

Although it should have been a skirmish made in heaven for eagle-lovers abroad a tourist vessel, it spelled trouble for the whole point of the mid-winter cruise – the release of an injured sea-eagle which had been under rehabilitation.

The eagle release in fact proved to be the highlight of my birding year, as I look back at the past 12 months as 2017 draws to a close.

The trip had been organised by the owners of the luxury tourist vessel the Odalisque, Tasmanian Bot Charters, as both a fund-raising exercise for the Raptor and Wildlife Refuge at Kettering and a way to set the female eagle free among familiar surroundings.

The eagle, which had spent about a year at the refuge recovering from damage to a leg and wing after a collision with power lines had been recovered from the Channel area, where it was set for release off Bruny Island.

The main danger for the eagle, however, was posed by the very eagle harassing the gannet, and a further two spotted as the Odalisque made its way down the Bruni d’Entrecasteux Channel.  Both wedge-tailed and sea eagles are fiercely territorial and will attack any other eagle invading their patch.

The eagle and owner of the refuge, Craig Webb, had been picked up at Kettering and now we cruised the Channel looking for a sheltered spot not too far from the coast free of possible rivals for the female.

Once the coast was clear, Craig Webb climbed to the upper deck and took the eagle out of its protective, carrying tube.

He had ensured it had received much exercise in the extensive eagle aviaries at the refuge in preceding months and with a with a little encouragement it was soon flying free. There was one anxious moment when it dipped towards the water but with powerful flaps of its wings it was soon rising again, making its way on a a perch on a dead gum at the water’s edge.

There was applause all round from the 30 or so paying passengers, tickets for the unique cruise raising about $2200 for the refuge.

Mr Webb has released about 20 wedge-tailed and white-bellied sea-eagles in the 12 years he has operated the refuge but this is the first one to receive such high-end treatment aboard a luxury vessel, which normally plies the Bathurst Harbour and Port Davey in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

“I’m really stoked,” said Mr Webb as the bird landed. “This is the whole point of the refuge. It’s to get the birds back into the wild. Our motto is ‘get ‘em in, get ‘em out’.”

He said powerlines presented a constant danger to endangered wedge-tailed eagles and sea-eagles, although he was working with the electricity transmission authorities to alleviate the problem.

“But don’t get me on to wind farms,” he said to about 25 passengers on Odalisque, who had paid for the voyage as part of a fund-raising exercise for the refuge. “My language will be too colourful.”

The owner of the Odalisque, Pieter van der Woude, said his operating company, Tasmanian Boat Charters, had always been a strong supporter of the refuge.

“We see the eagles as part of our story,” he said. “Down at Port Davey we always point them out to our guests. We saw 14 sea-eagles within a couple of hours once, feeding on couta that had come to the surface.

“And there’s nothing like seeing a soaring sea-eagle. Our guests love seeing these magnificent creatures in the wild.”

As a final flourish during the release, the sea-eagle, a female,  was given a dab of nail varnish on her talons. Far from a beauty treatment befitting first-class travel, the nail varnish would identify her if she should come to grief and be brought to the refuge again.

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