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Wadasé Zhabwé’s telemetry stuns experts

Bree Dunham
CPN Aviary Assistant Manager
Wadasé visits the CPN Eagle Aviary in September 2017.

Winter is finally here, although looking at the forecast here in Oklahoma, you might not know it. The first week of winter brings a welcome warm spell with temperatures in the high 60s. That may sound unusual, but it’s on par with the rest of the year. Spring gave us more than our total yearly rainfall in one season; summer’s green hung around well into fall; and fall seemed to just skip right into winter. Our winters here rarely bring us picture-worthy snow. But this time of year does bring migratory birds of all kinds, and it signals breeding season for raptors, including eagles. This year’s winter in particular is the winter we have waited on since we started sharing Wadasé Zhabwé’s (pronounced Wah-daw-say Zahb-way) story six and a half years ago.

Like a broken record, stuck on repeat, we kept saying, “One more season of her telemetry data, and we will know where she nests.” In fact, there’s a worn spot on the corner of our desk where we superstitiously knock on wood during tours when we talk about how long she’s worn her GPS telemetry backpack. According to all the raptor experts that write the books, eagles mature and should begin breeding at 4 to 5 years of age, so we were positive she would nest last winter. However, Wadasé, like the true modern woman, is taking things slow. This spring she will be eight. When eagles should have been laying eggs last winter, she was off touring some of her favorite spots around the Washita and North Canadian Rivers. One thing that we are absolutely sure of after all this time is that eagle’s do not read the books. Every expert we consulted with when we released her said she would most likely go right back to Florida. They said we would be lucky if she wore the GPS backpack six months to a year. They all reminded us of the mortality rates of juvenile eagles in the wild. But at each critical juncture, she has proven them all wrong.

Wadasé’s last visit to the aviary was the first week of September. True to her pattern over the last few years, she visits late fall or early winter, briefly, as if to just check in. Since then, she has been down along the Washita River just northeast of Verden, Oklahoma. This area is just a few miles of where we expected her to nest last year. In the early morning on Nov. 11, I went to the office to check telemetry. When I downloaded the telemetry, it was incomplete. I told myself it was just a glitch with the ARGOS satellite or just too early and to give it a while. By late afternoon, it was clear Wadasé’s telemetry had stopped transmitting. Her last point was in flight along the banks of the Washita, midday on Nov. 9, and then there was nothing. We always knew this day was part of our journey with her. We had about a thousand questions and fears all at once. What did that mean for Wadasé? Did the backpack battery wear out? Did it just fail? Did it fall off? Did the frayed antenna prevent it from transmitting data? With limited daylight hours, we planned to gather local landowner information and leave the following morning to get to her last transmitted GPS location. We called local game wardens and rehab facilities to be sure no eagles had been found or reported injured. We also contacted Rob Domenech from Raptor View Research in Montana, who fitted her with the GPS, hoping he could share some insight about the lack of data.

No eagles had been reported. The game warden reminded us about deer season, so there are more hunters out in areas where she might be spotted if something had happened. Rob reminded us of the unpleasant areas to check, such as power lines and wind turbines in the area, but he felt like the telemetry was most likely in the river, like Mko Kno’s, because the data had been consistent and then the next hour there was nothing. At a certain depth in the water, the telemetry data could not be transmitted.

The next morning’s car ride to Verden was a very long hour and a half. Once we got to the area of the river where she had been, it was pretty clear why she chose that particular place. The road disappeared at a hairpin curve in the river that had flooded recently. We followed a trail through the field to avoid getting stuck or ending up in the river. All around us was open pasture and a sod farm. There were only a few houses in each mile section. Looking toward the river in the direction of her last GPS, there was just untouched wilderness. We gathered our camera and gear and headed off to search the area on foot. Jennifer spotted a juvenile bald eagle as it crossed above us from down river. When the juvenile was out of sight, I lowered my binoculars and movement caught my eye along the river. A large adult bald eagle landed just ahead of us. A quick look through both camera and spotting scope couldn’t rule out the bird having a band. We moved to the tree line for cover and worked our way closer, looking with the scope again but with no luck. It was windy and cold, and the bird sat with feet tucked under its feathers until it flew away just as we both looked down to find footing in the muddy field. We continued to search the area, and although we never spotted another adult eagle, we did find a nest that was much too large to be a hawks. Was that Wadasé? Could this be her nest?

While we still have so many questions, we have answered one of the most important questions. We found nothing to indicate Wadasé is doing anything but thriving in the wild. Landowners we spoke to were excited to learn about eagles around the area, and we have recruited several of them to keep an eye out for eagles. We will continue to monitor the nest site we found and others in and around the area. Our best chance of locating her will be nesting season, and with all the data collected over the years, we can hopefully narrow down a search area. Six and a half years, a total of 2,398 days, or just shy of 79 months does not sound all that long. But we’ve collected over 57,000 GPS points across a third of Oklahoma’s counties.

As this year comes to an end, we look back and count our blessings and hope for those yet to come. We have been incredibly fortunate to share Wadasé’s journey with you all for so long, and we hope to continue to do so with a little luck this winter season. We encourage you to keep your eyes out for Wadasé if you are near any of the areas she frequents. For more information about CPN’s Eagle Aviary or to read previous updates, visit potawatomiheritage.com. Share your encounters with Wadasé, Mko Kno or any other eagles or migrating raptors in Oklahoma or wherever you may be with us at aviary@potawatomi.org. Migwetch (thanks).