Imagine seeing the Star Wars Millennium Falcon plummet through the trees.
That’s how Ann Kirn described seeing two eagles in a fight over territory, talons locked as they dropped into the St. Croix River July 7.
She and her husband Andy were on their pontoon, heading out for a swim after a day of yard work at their Marine home. Avid bird watchers, the pair was quick to notice what Andy described as “very unusual eagle flight.”
At first, they weren’t sure exactly what they were seeing, but before long both birds had landed in the river and appeared distressed.
“The larger eagle was calling from the water,” Ann said. “I don’t know why else it would do it but to call a mate. That’s what broke our hearts. And the other eagle was just trying not to go under.”
In a back channel with little cell phone service, the Kirns were unsure what to do. They called the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, but were not certain when or even if a deputy would come.
“This was not a human emergency but there was time pressure,” Ann said. “We didn’t want to leave the eagles. Some of the boats were going pretty fast and we didn’t want a wake to wash over them.”
Instead, they reached out to their neighbors, Tod Drescher and Dorothy Deetz.
“They dropped everything,” Ann said. “Dorothy called the Eagle Center, which directed her to the Raptor Center. … Suddenly I see a text pop up from the Raptor Center. They gave us the advice to try to separate them.”
Andy donned an orange life jacket and jumped in.
“I went in with a boat hook but didn’t know what I was going to do,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sheriff’s Deputy Larry Cable had arrived at the Marine Landing b.o.t.m. to launch a boat.
“When he showed up I heard him say something about a drowning. He asked to put a boat in,” recalled Mike Zajac, who owns the landing with wife Megan Kavanagh. “After some back and forth he asked if I had a boat they could take.”
They set out in the workboat with Reserve Deputy Deni Jo Ballanger, Zajac still uncertain of who might be drowning.
“We get there and Andy’s in the water,” Zajac recalled. “It was like, ‘Are you OK?’”
Kirn — who later joked that he must have looked like a toddler in the life preserver and holding a pool noodle — pointed to the birds. They were only about six feet away, but camouflaged.
Improvising a rescue, the group pushed a wooden pallet under the birds, lifting them as it rose to the surface.
Eagles, Ann learned later from a naturalist at Warner Nature Center, won’t release their talons until they are on solid ground. Aided by a canoe paddle, the birds released their grasp.
Separated, one bird made its way to a nearby tree. The other struggled to climb onto a log, where it stayed for hours.
The group had departed, thinking the action was done. But the volunteer at the Raptor Center, Terry Headley, continued to think about the birds. After learning from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office that one had not flown away, Headley got Zajac’s number and asked him to check on the eagle again.
He found both eagles much the same: one perched in a tree, the other on a floating branch.
“I asked if he’d be willing to take me out,” Headley said. After a 45-minute drive from Fridley, now about 8 p.m., Headley, Zajac and a group of locals including Charlotte Wilcox and Missy Bowen, set out to catch the bird.
“Mike is a wonderful navigator,” Headley said. “He got in the smallest places.”
They got close to the bird and Headley, holding a large net, began to walk logs like a balance beam. The bird hopped away. They circled around and tried again, but it went deeper.
“I don’t give up very easy,” Headley said. “I feel like when I’m there I have to get the bird.”
The group made another attempt, Headley approaching again.
“Charlotte, Missy and I were talking about how the bird was going to hop away again,” Zajac recalled. “I was thinking if I hopped in maybe we could net it. It was starting to get dark by that time. Terry was close, so I came up from behind. You could see the bird was just kind of like which one of you? You’re looking at this thing and you want to help you but also, it could rip your face off.”
With quick swoop, Zajac netted the bird. Headley reached under it and secured it by the talons. They took it out of the net and covered its head with Zajac’s shirt to calm it.
“We had to make our way 150 feet through the water back to the boat,” Zajac said. :And there were logs in the way. … Fortunately the bird was calm the whole way.”
With dark closing in, they returned to the boat. Zajac looked around.
“Charlotte,” he said, “how did we even get in here?”
Wilcox was able to pick the route back to the main channel.
Raptor Center recovery
Headley brought the eagle to the Raptor Center, where they determined it was a five-year-old female, just reaching adulthood.
“This one was a newbie as far as getting into fights,” Headley said.
The eagle had sustained multiple punctures on its thighs and abdomen, reported Raptor Center Assistant Director Lori Arent.
“She is on antibiotics and pain medication as we presume she is very sore and those wounds must hurt,” Arent said five days after the rescue. “It will take several weeks for her to heal and then she will be exercised to get her strength back up to where it needs to be for her release.”
The eagle will be released into neutral territory. Headley hopes to be there.
“That’s kind of cool to be part of the whole process from the rescue to the release,” she said.
To almost everyone involved, the event spoke volumes about life in Marine.
“To me it’s a heartwarming tale of the community,” Ann Kirn said. “A lot of people played a role. Marine and the river are teeming with life and we face these things all the time. Who you’re going to save, how much you’re intervening in nature and if it’s appropriate.”
“It was a group effort,” said Zajac. “It didn’t seem that dramatic at the time. It was more of a challenge. It’s life on the river.”