ANTIGO – When the crowds gather Saturday at the VFW Park boat landing in Prairie du Sac, they’ll see Marge Gibson engaged in the easiest, quickest and most enjoyable part of her job.
The release back into the wild of a once sick or injured eagle is the pinnacle of her mission and a way to further educate the masses about the majestic and symbolic birds that continue their remarkable comeback.
Like she has in years past, Gibson, founder and soul of the Antigo-based Raptor Education Group, will cradle an eagle, show it off to the camera-wielding crowd and then, in an instant, set it free to fish the open water below the last dam on the Wisconsin River before it empties into the Mississippi River 92 miles down stream.
The stretch of river along the Dane and Sauk county line is one of the best habitats in the Midwest for wintering eagles and an ideal place for Gibson to free her patients who have recovered from shootings, collisions with vehicles and lead poisoning. There is abundant fish, ample roosting sites and towering bluffs. And thanks to groups like Ferry Bluff Eagle Council, sponsor of Eagle Watching Days scheduled for Friday and Saturday, there is a culture of eagle appreciation in the Sauk Prairie area that brings in tourists by the thousands each winter.
“It’s important we have that as a release site,” Gibson said. “It’s absolutely perfect.”
But the majority of Gibson’s work is done out of the spotlight at her Langlade County compound 34 miles northeast of Wausau that is the largest of its kind in the state. With a small staff, a few volunteers and a yearly influx of summer interns, Gibson mends birds of varying species back to health. She is licensed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service but gets no federal or state money. Her nearly $300,000 in expenses are covered by donations.
Costs include salaries for her staff, medical supplies and in warmer months, when injured loons start arriving, live fish. The diet for recovering raptors can include road-kill deer, dead salmon collected by the state Department of Natural Resources after the spawning run and cows that have been put down after breaking a limb. One of the regular purchases for Gibson is beef heart from a Green Bay meat packing company. The heart is low in fat and highly nutritious.
“They really need pure muscle,” Gibson said as she showed off a 60-pound case of beef heart in a walk-in cooler. “We try to think of everything for them.”
Gibson grew up in Antigo and moved away for 28 years to California where she worked with condors as a field biologist. In 1989, she was instrumental in helping rescue birds affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. She returned to Wisconsin in 1990 to be closer to family and continued working with birds by creating, with her husband, Don, the Raptor Education Group.
The organization sprawls across their property and includes a dozen buildings plus an outdoor enclosure with a pond for injured waterfowl. Birds in that enclosure last week included Canada geese, tundra and trumpeter swans and a pair of sandhill cranes. Other birds on the property included snowy owls, rough legged hawks and 11 barred owls.
In 2014, Gibson’s facility treated 67 eagles, 22 Canada geese, 10 great blue heron, 15 loons, 33 red-tail hawks, three osprey, a peregrine falcon, 62 robins and many other birds too sick or hurt to survive in the wild. Other smaller buildings in the compound hold birds that will never be released because they could not fully recover. Those birds include a snowy owl, a curious raven and a 16-pound bald eagle that Gibson rescued from the Valdez spill. She estimates the bird, which cannot fly and has been named “Qushquluk,” is more than 45 years old.
Her organization is also a training ground for those pursuing a career in avian rehabilitation. In 2012, Wausau Homes donated a two-story home for the property. The ground level is used for educating visitors like school groups while the second floor is a fully furnished living quarters for interns who come from around the country and visiting researchers from as far away as Greece. It can sleep up to nine people and includes a kitchen, living room and study area.
One of those interns is now an employee. Molly Schleif, 23, grew up in Hortonville where she became interested in wildlife while in high school. She went to college at UW-Stevens Point, interned with Gibson in 2012 and was hired in 2013.
“I came here, and I loved it,” Schleif said. “We can see some difficult cases.”
The centerpiece of the facility is the flight building that allows birds to exercise their wings. At 120 feet long, 60 feet wide and with 28-foot-tall ceilings, it’s one of the largest facilities of its kind in the world, according to Gibson. There are padded perches and a floor with 8 inches of pea gravel to help soften the landings for birds trying to fly. The facility is divided into multiple enclosures, but the largest was reserved last week for 12 bald eagles, most of which will be released Saturday in Prairie du Sac.
“Conditioning is so, so important,” Gibson said. “They have to be 100 percent before they leave us because they have to be able to catch dinner that day and not be compromised when they’re in the wild.”
The flight building also holds the clinic, which serves as an intensive care unit. It was filled with cardboard boxes and laundry baskets covered with sheets and secured by clothes pins. One box held an eagle with a spine injury. In another, a tundra swan was recovering from lead poisoning. The room, which includes a bath tub for loons, was quiet, except for the knocking sound of a hairy woodpecker who pecked at a log in his box as it recovered from a head injury received after flying into a window in Antigo.
“A lot of stuff happens in this little space,” Gibson said. “It’s a low-stress environment.”
Gibson talks softly and wears only surgical gloves on her hands when handling a bird, regardless of size. During one procedure on an eagle with a wing injury, Gibson gently cradled the bird as Schleif applied Neosporin to its wing. Moments later, concerned about dehydration, Schleif inserted a rubber tube down the bird’s throat and water from a 70 cc syringe was injected.
“She knows birds so well. It’s instinct to her,” said Audrey Gossett, 28, a UW-Stevens Point graduate who has been employed by Gibson for the past two years. “Every day, we learn something new from her.”