Andie Groff has witnessed eaglets hatch 32 times and has watched several types of raptors be released, but Saturday's eaglet release at Starved Rock State Park near Utica was a first for her -- not to mention the hundreds of others who gathered to see the birds take flight.
Two bald eaglets rehabilitated after an 85-foot fall in late May from their nest on the grounds of the Mooseheart home and school for youths in need near Batavia were released to the wild in a habitat where plenty of full-grown eagles spend the winter.
The birds had spent about five months at Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation in Barrington, learning to fly in a flight chamber.
"A 100-foot flight pen isn't a big space to learn to fly in," said Groff, a Yorkville resident who founded Fox Valley Wildlife Foundation and a group called Chicagoland Eagleholics. Still, she added, "It went well."
The two eaglets, who are brothers, caught their first free flight about noon Saturday. Released one at a time from an island on the Illinois River, they took different paths into the wild blue yonder. The first flew directly toward the crowd, gathered on the south shore of the river, then headed west, pausing a couple times on branches before flying out of sight.
"That first one, when he took off, it clicked right away," Groff said about the animal's flying skills.
The second eaglet made a beeline for some trees on the island and vanished from the crowd.
A group of Naperville Boy Scouts at the Starved Rock campground on their monthly camping trip became eagle watchers. Jonathan Buettner, 15, called the birds of prey "my brothers" -- while they're eagles, he's an Eagle Scout.
"This was really cool," Jonathan said after watching the eaglets fly away. "They were bigger than I thought."
Plum Island, the area from which the eaglets were released, is a favorite spot for eagles who spend the winter at Starved Rock to find food, said Marc Miller, director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. He said the state bought the island to protect the habitat after a developer expressed interest in building cabins and a boat launch there in 2003 and 2004.
"It will forever be a home to eagles who winter here," Miller said, expressing the hope that the eaglets will quickly acclimate.
Young eaglets like those released Saturday need to live near adult eagles so they can scavenge food from their full-grown counterparts, said Dawn Keller, founder and director of Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation. And with an injured adult eagle sharing their space at the Barrington facility the past few months, Keller said the eaglets already have plenty of scavenging experience.
"I can promise you they've been practicing stealing food from the adult eagle," Keller said.
It's been an expensive few months for Flint Creek to provide a suitable eaglet habitat. The nonprofit center spent $20,000 helping the birds recover from the fall they suffered when storms knocked their nest out of a tree. But eagle aficionados have helped, especially Groff's Chicagoland Eagleholics group, which she said raised $4,000 in three days for Flint Creek's eaglet-related costs.
Those attending the release party Saturday were asked to make a $10 donation to further the cause, and the Starved Rock Foundation presented Keller with a $1,000 donation during a presentation made before the eaglets were let go.
Keller said Saturday's release was a great resolution to the eaglets' dramatic story.
"We're really excited to be releasing these eaglets back to the wild," she said.