Near Crystal Falls, Mich., in 1998 someone pulled out a gun and shot a bald eagle. Twice. The eagle was discovered shortly thereafter, but the prognosis wasn't good.
Twelve years later, the outlook is much different for that eagle.
The amazing story began in 1998 when the injured eagle was put on board a Northwest Airlines flight, flown to The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota and surgically repaired. The bird was banded through the Carpenter Nature Center in Hastings, then released 13 weeks after landing in Minnesota.
Just what happened to the male after it was released wasn't known. He took to the skies, and the chances that the Carpenter Nature Center would ever learn his whereabouts were slim.
But that's where Jon Smithers comes in to play.
One day in 2003, while out taking photographs near St. Peter, Smithers happened upon a bald eagle. A few days later, Smithers found the eagle in the same area. The bird dropped out of a tree and flew toward Smithers, who started snapping photos of the bird as quickly as possible.
"They've been fun to watch ever since," Smithers said.
The eagle and its mate quickly became Smithers' favorite subjects.
About two months after finding the nest, he was taking photographs of the birds eating turtles. That's when he noticed a small band on the male's leg.
Since that day in 2003, Smithers had one big objective: to find out the numbers on that band so that the eagle could be identified.
"That's when the mission started," Smithers said. "I wanted to read that band."
Just two weeks ago, he accomplished that objective. Thanks in part to advances in photographic technology, Smithers' patience and a whole lot of gear, he was able to clearly make out the final few digits of the bird's band. Turns out, it was the bird from Michigan.
"You wouldn't believe the relief after I got all the numbers together," Smithers said. "I"ve been wanting to read that band for seven years."
Smithers was able to document the first three digits on the band in 2008, but with eight or nine digits on a band, he had a long way to go. Slowly he added numbers until finally, on June 13, he snapped the definitive photographs of the final few digits. He contacted officials who eventually referred him to Carpenter Nature Center.
"They were definitely interested," Smithers said. "Statistically, something like this rarely happens," he said. "You get a live bird that hasn't been caught. To identify an eagle is pretty rare if it is live and flying around."
Smithers named the bird Freedom and its mate Liberty. Freedom is at least 17 years old. He was at least 5 years old when he first arrived in Minnesota, according to Raptor Center officials.
"I think this is a great story of team work, passion, perseverance and hope," said Jen Vieth, Carpenter's development director. "In this case, corporations, government, individuals and non-profit organizations all worked together to save one threatened bird."
Folllowing the eagles for all these years has been a pleasure for Smithers.
"I've always loved bald eagles," he said. "It's our symbol of freedom. They're majestic."
Since finding the nest seven years ago, Smithers has worked with city officials in St. Peter and the Department of Natural Resources to protect their habitat. He's also been able to keep their nest a secret.
"I never see anybody else down there," Smithers said. "I've kept it secret for like seven years, and it's a quarter mile out of town. They're in a perfect location."
Since 1981, Jim Fitzpatrick, staff and volunteers at Carpenter Nature Center have been banding birds. When Smithers saw the band, he knew the bird had a story and he knew if he could find out which bird it was, it would mean a lot to those who banded him.
"He had been banded for some reason, and I wanted to know what the reason was," Smithers said. "I wanted to see how the recovery of these eagles is really working."
Smithers also wanted to know what was involved in nursing this bird back to health. When he got that answer from the Department of Natural Resources and Carpenter Nature Center, he was astounded at how much work went into getting this bird healthy enough to release back into the wild.
"All this information together tells us there is something here that is really working," he said. "
"Today not only not only is this individual eagle thriving and adding eaglets to the Bald Eagle population each year, but Bald Eagles are no longer threatened or endangered," Vieth said. "Looking out at the students at Carpenter Nature Center enjoying their time connecting with the natural world, you can't help but smile at the job we've done bringing back this iconic bird. Years ago it was rare to see bald eagles, and today there are over three active eagle nests within five minutes of downtown Hastings."
Photographically, Smithers had to acquire all kinds of gear to get the shots. He ended up getting the definitive photos with a Canon camera upon which he had mounted a 400mm lens. In addition to the 400mm lens, he had three teleconverters in place that, basically, work to magnify the lens. Essentially, he ended up with a 2,038mm lens.
Smithers has numerous photographs of Freedom and Liberty on his website at www.jonsmithers.com.
To view video of the bird, visit: