Girl's memory soars with raptor release
SAUK CITY (AP) -- Tonya Markgraf's spirit soared over Eagle Days.
By Lisa Haefs
Thursday, January 20, 2005
The 23-year-old Markgraf, daughter of Nancy and Butch Markgraf of Antigo, died in a motor vehicle crash north of Antigo in September 2003.
Last Saturday in Sauk City, as the family watched, Marge Gibson released a bald eagle in her memory at the annual celebration on the banks of the Wisconsin River in southwestern Wisconsin.
It was an emotional moment.
"Now her spirit is really free," her mother, teary-eyed with the emotions of the moment, said.
Even for Gibson, who has released hundreds of eagles over her career as a raptor rehabilitator, it was a special moment.
"All of our releases are special because each of the birds has its own story and its own personality," Gibson said.
But this eagle didn't behave like the usual immature eagle that it was, she said.
After release, eagles usually make a beeline for the opposite shore. But this bird hung around, circling twice before swooping toward the water and dipping its talons lightly.
"None of them ever do that," Gibson said. "And touching the water is a very adult thing to do, not something an immature eagle would do."
Then the bird was joined on the opposite shore by two other immature eagles, from the numerous roosts that make the Wisconsin River below the Sauk Prairie dam such a great place to winter. An adult hovered overhead.
By evening, Gibson said the immature female and several other immature birds had gathered together to create a new roost, another uncommon occurrence.
"She changed the dynamics of that night," Gibson said. "That is really unheard of. She just has a magnetic personality."
Eagle Days is a celebration of all things avian that annually draws thousands of people to the neighboring communities of Sauk City and Sauk Prairie. Gibson said last Saturday's release normally would have been witnessed by thousands of people, but the crowds were thinned somewhat by the subzero cold that gripped the area.
Gibson, who operates Raptor Education Group International, explained that after Tonya died, she contacted the Markgrafs and suggested the eagle release in her memory.
"Many times releasing a bird is beneficial to a family," Gibson said, "and Tonya loved eagles."
The "perfect" eagle for the release arrived at Raptor Education Group last summer, a seven-week-old eaglet that had tumbled from its nest near Wisconsin Dells.
"We had an emergency relay to the center," Gibson said. "She wouldn't have made it another 10 hours."
But, under medical care, the young eagle thrived and soon displayed a very definite personality.
"She was just full of life and spirit," Gibson said. "She was the leader with all the other youngsters in the group."
When the Markgrafs called, the eagle was ready for release. They became acquainted with the bird last Friday evening, watching as Gibson performed the pre-release physical.
And they were there the next day to witness the bird's first flight to freedom.
In addition to the Markgraf's bird, Gibson released another eagle the same day, a 25-year-old regal male, complete with white head. The raptor had come to Gibson from near Mosinee, and when released, hi-tailed it back in that direction.
"I imagine he was home by sunset," Gibson said.
Last Sunday included the release of another eagle, an immature bird from the Upper Peninsula.
Sauk City's Eagle Days is the perfect place to release rehabilitated eagles because the waters of the Wisconsin River stay open below the dam and hundreds of eagles of all ages congregate there.
"This is the time when we do the releases and it is the perfect place down there," she said.
Gibson said she still has 20 eagles in her care, awaiting release. She expects to continue to return the birds to the wild into March. After that, the mature raptors become territorial and won't assist the immature eagles.
Although Raptor Education Group International's eagle releases and programs are a highlight of Eagle Days, Gibson receives no financial support from the program other than expenses. She also received no state or federal assistance and keeps the raptor rehabilitation center open using private funds and donations, which are tax deductible.
A new organization Friends of REGI, has been formed to assist Gibson with volunteer work and fund-raising. For details, contact Kathy Fenno at kfennofrontiernet.net.