Welcome return for Eagle Festival's star attraction

Courtesy photoAtka, a bald eagle that disappeared Monday from Horizon Wings Raptor Rehabilitation and Education Center in Ashford, Connecticut, has been found. He's headed to Newburyport this weekend for the city's annual Eagle Festival. 

A bald eagle that couldn’t fly and was reported missing from a Connecticut rehabilitation center Monday was found unharmed just days ahead of his star turn at this weekend’s Merrimack River Eagle Festival in Newburyport.

Mary-Beth Kaeser, owner and founder of Horizon Wings Raptor Rehabilitation and Education, said Atka, the male bird, was found “unharmed on the property” late Tuesday morning following an extensive search.

Atka, who came to the Ashford, Connecticut, nonprofit in 2011 as a 1-year-old, can’t fly because of a permanent wing injury. With this injury, he cannot survive on his own in the wild, so Kaeser trained him to be an educational ambassador.

Kaeser said she still anticipates that Atka will take part in the raptor demonstrations at Newburyport City Hall this Saturday, Feb. 15.

The presentations, part of the Eagle Festival, will feature raptors of all sizes from 10 to 11 a.m. and 12:45 to 1:45 p.m. These demonstrations play an important role in educating people about endangered species and the conservation of wildlife.

Melissa Vokey, administrative coordinator and development director at Mass Audubon’s Joppa Flats Education Center in Newburyport, said the rehabilitation center has been performing the raptor demonstration at the Eagle Festival since 2017 and Atka is the star of the show.

“It’s what we are doing this whole thing about,” she said. “It’s all about bald eagles.

“It’s fairly rare that you find a rehabilitation center — and that’s the only place that we go to — that has a bald eagle,” Vokey added. “Even if you have a bald eagle in rehabilitation, the chances that that bald eagle can actually be out among the public are very slim.”

Vokey said while she wishes Atka could survive on his own in the wild, she is grateful for the educational component.

“His presence at these demonstrations just educates people about so many things regarding wildlife,” she said. “It’s not just bald eagles, but wildlife in general.”

She said the demonstration reminds people of their “responsibility to provide animals with a habitat” and also “not to fool around with that habitat.”

On Monday morning, Kaeser found the door to the bird’s aviary open and the lock on the ground. It is unclear whether someone attempted to steal Atka, she said.

The circumstances of his disappearance are under investigation by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and state police.

Shortly after the bird was reported missing Monday, the center posted on Facebook, “All we ask is that Atka is returned safely to us, or we are told of his whereabouts. No questions asked’ we just want our boy back safe and unharmed.”

Volunteers organized a search party on the property and nearby. In another Facebook post, the center wrote, “If he was able to escape, he would most likely be somewhere in the surrounding area.”

Brian Bennett, a raptor enthusiast from Waterbury, Connecticut, launched a GoFundMe effort right away. The online fundraising page, as of Tuesday evening, had raised $5,608 toward a reward for information regarding the eagle’s disappearance.

Bennett updated the page Tuesday to share that Atka had been found.

He thanked the 119 people who “unselfishly contributed” to the fund and the hundreds more who posted on social media to help find the bird.

“It may be gray and raining outside today but the sun is beaming in my heart,” he wrote

The Eagle Festival, which first came to Greater Newburyport in 2006, is presented by the Joppa Flats Education Center and Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island.

For more information and a complete schedule of festival events, go to massaudubon.org/get-outdoors/wildlife-sanctuaries/joppa-flats/news-events/eagle-festival.



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