2023 Year in Review: Grace Leytham, Front Desk Coordinator

It’s time to look back on 2023! Check our blog between Christmas and New Year’s for a variety of stories and memories of 2023 from the staff and volunteers of the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

Working as Front Desk Coordinator at the Wildlife Center of Virginia, I often receive calls where people start with, “Well, this may be a first for you!” It becomes pretty hard to surprise me with the amount of injured wildlife I see yearly – each with a unique rescue story.

The call that I took on the morning of September 21 was one of the few calls I have received that truly surprised me. The caller found a juvenile Bald Eagle on their property in Page County that was unable to fly. While I get many reports about grounded eagles, normally I am helping to coordinate rescue efforts. Most people aren’t prepared to contain an eagle and I never want to put someone in a position where they could get hurt. For this reason, I reach out to local law enforcement or other permitted facilities who have the proper protective gear to contain the bird safely.

In the case of the Page County eagle, the call started with “I have a Bald Eagle contained in a large crate, can I bring it to your facility?” I was very taken aback but instructed them to bring it in because it clearly needed help.

The eagle was found at the Birdsong Pleasure Garden by property owners Tom and Lesley. They give public tours of their garden by appointment only and were in the process of giving a tour when they heard fluttering over some hedges. Further investigation revealed a juvenile Bald Eagle struggling to fly and unable to get very far off the ground. Thankfully they recognized that this was not normal behavior and coordinated a rescue effort all on their own by reaching out to a local falconer named Jennifer. She was able to safely contain the eagle using proper protective gear. From there, Tom drove the bird to our facility for evaluation.

When the car pulled up, I saw a very large crate in the back of the vehicle. I quickly gave Tom some paperwork to fill out and then went to grab the crate to bring inside. I just was not prepared for what was inside the crate – the largest female Bald Eagle I have ever laid eyes on. She took up the entire crate and I was immediately in such awe of this beautiful bird. I quickly brought the eagle inside to the hospital area so my colleague Paige and I could transfer the bird into a separate crate.

Once I got the eagle settled into a dark, quiet area where it could de-stress, I brought Tom his crate back and handed him a card with the patient number assigned to the eagle which is #23-3492. Tom also requested that Paige and I write down our names on the card so that he did not forget who helped him intake the large bird. While we do not give names to patients so as not to anthropomorphize them, somewhere along the way, the eagle was referred to as Grace Paige — after the names that were written down on the patient card. Even though it came about by accident, I have never had an animal named after me. It really made this specific bird that much more special.

Dr. Emma performed the intake exam for the eagle. A weight was obtained which showed that the eagle weighed 8.7 lbs at intake. Dr. Emma observed a noticeable left wing droop as well as bleeding and bruising of the left wing. Palpation of the wing led her to suspect that there was a fracture present. Radiographs confirmed a fractured radius and ulna which were both in need of surgical repair. A bandage was placed to stabilize the wing until surgery could be performed the following day. Blood samples were also taken which revealed that the bird was suffering from subclinical lead toxicosis. High levels of lead are something we see frequently in raptor patients who come into our care. Any amount of lead in an animal’s system is considered unsafe so our treatment team administered medication which helped successfully “scrub” the lead from the eagle’s bloodstream.

On September 22, staff vets performed surgery on the eagle to place pins in the fractured bones. The pins helped stabilize the fractures and keep them aligned so the bone could fuse back together properly. Laser therapy was performed on the incision site to encourage new tissue growth and speed up the healing process. About a month later, repeat radiographs were taken which confirmed that the fractures healed beautifully and the pins were ready to be removed.

During this month-long process, there was not a day that went by that my mind didn’t drift off and think about this particular bird. Due to her size, she was housed in a large enclosed space called “Hole in the Wall” which is located in the center’s indoor Hold area. I had to walk by her enclosure frequently and each day I would hold my breath and cross my fingers that she was still with us. It filled me with so much hope when I would see those big eyes look up at me.

Eventually, after another month of treatment and monitoring, it was determined that the eagle was ready to move to an outdoor enclosure. She was moved into the center’s A3 tower on November 20 where she stayed for about 10 days while acclimating to the outdoors. On November 30, I had the honor of being able to assist rehabilitation supervisor Alex in moving her to the center’s A3 flight pen where she currently resides. Since being in care, the eagle has grown even more in size and now weighs a whopping 10.3 pounds! She certainly weighs a lot more than any other eagle currently at our Center.

Going forward, the plan is to help get the eagle’s stamina back. Rehab staff enter her enclosure for daily exercise sessions and they report that she struggles to make three passes in the flight pen and only gets about a foot off the ground. Each patient has to start somewhere though and I will always remain hopeful that she continues to improve in our care.

While she has come a long way, there is still quite a long way to go. I will continue to cross my fingers until the day that I see patient #23-3492 with the words “evaluate for release” next to her name. I look forward to the day that I can see her released back in the wild near the Birdsong Pleasure Garden where she belongs. I know finders Tom and Lesley are looking forward to that day as well. In reality, they are the true heroes of this story. If they wouldn’t have rallied behind this eagle, there would have been a much different outcome.

The next couple of months may be filled with anxious hoping, but I am okay with that because it means that “Grace Paige” holds a special place in my heart forever.

— Grace Leytham, Front Desk Coordinator

Check out all of our year-in-review posts!