Young hawk is quite a catch

Lake Michigan fishermen who thought they were picking up trash instead net wayward bird that is now recuperating

A FEISTY red-tailed hawk showed off for the camera after Kristen Bustamante of Pine View Wildlife Rehabilitation Center removed it from a fishing net at the Port Washington marina last Tuesday (right). The raptor was found in the waters of Lake Michigan about six miles from Port and rescued by fishermen Gary Sharp and Al Johnson. Photo by Gary Sharp
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

Gary Sharp of Oostburg and his cousin Al Johnson of Menomonee Falls caught something they never expected when they went fishing off Port Washington last week — an immature red-tailed hawk.

 The raptor was exhausted and fatigued when they netted it in Lake Michigan about six miles off the Port shore Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 14, but is recuperating at Pine View Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.

“I have never been called out on a rescue like this,” Kristen Bustamante, manager of Pine View’s hospital, said Monday. “It’s strange to find a hawk this far out into the lake.”

Jean Lord, executive director of Pine View, concurred, saying, “For us, it’s a first.”

For Sharp, the day was memorable not just because he and his cousin saved the raptor but also because it was the first day they had gotten together in 42 years.

They planned to meet at noon at the Port marina, fish throughout the afternoon, then meet up with Sharp’s son Zachary at 5 p.m. and head onto the lake again to fish until dark.

When they were out between five and six miles, Sharp said, they saw something  — he thought it was trash — floating in the water. 

“I hate to see it (garbage) floating in the water,” he said. “I told Al, ‘We’re going to go over there and pick it up.’”

As they got closer, Sharp said, he realized it wasn’t trash but instead was a bird. He thought it was a seagull.

“As we got closer, I said, ‘That’s not a seagull. It looks like a baby eagle,’” Sharp said.

When they got to the bird, it tried to fly away.

“It barely got two feet above the water,” Sharp said. “It made it about 20 feet and then it crashed into the water. This time, it couldn’t even lift its head. The head was in the water and it was drowning.”

The men motored over to the bird, and Johnson scooped it into his fishing net and placed the bird, still in the net, on the bow of the boat.

“It just sat there for a minute,” Sharp said. “He (Johnson) started petting its head.”

The bird moved a bit, perhaps trying to get comfortable, he said.

“I told Al, ‘I’m not going to let this thing die out here,’” Sharp said.

They headed back to shore, calling the Coast Guard and Department of Natural Resources to try and figure out what to do for the bird.

Eventually, they were transferred to Harrington Beach State Park in the Town of Belgium, where they were referred to Pine View.

Sharp said the trip back to the Port marina was relatively uneventful. 

“As long as we didn’t go fast, it was calm,” he said. “And the more we talked to it, the more it showed signs of life.”

Johnson eventually sat next to the bird, petting its head occasionally, which seemed to help keep the raptor calm.

“The look it gave us said, to me, ‘Thanks guys for getting me out of the water,’” Sharp said. “It was so peaceful. I expected it to be flapping around.”

At one point, Sharp said, the men tried to cover the bird’s head with his sweatshirt to keep it calm.

“Then it did get agitated,” he said.

When the men got to shore, Sharp said, the fishermen there asked what they had caught. They couldn’t believe it when the men answered, he said.

“Everybody on shore was amazed,” he said. “They asked, ‘Did it go after your bait?’”

Bustamante said when the men arrived, the raptor was aggressive and held tight to the net when she worked to free it.

“She was fatigued. I could tell she was stressed,” Bustamante said. 

The hawk, she said, is a first-year juvenile red-tailed hawk as evidenced by its very pale yellow eyes, very light morph, or coloring and lack of a red tail.

“It’s a very beautiful bird,” Bustamante said. “It’s got an attitude.”

It’s hard to tell if the bird is male or female, she said, in part because that’s often judged by size. This hawk was underweight and hungry, with no discernible injuries. 

A visit to the veterinarian Tuesday confirmed that fact, with no fractures or bruising found.

On Monday, the raptor was placed in an outdoor pre-flight cage at the Pine View hospital, where it will work to increase its stamina, then be moved to a flight cage.

“I don’t imagine she’s going to be in there (the pre-flight cage) long,” Bustamante said.

Depending on how quickly the hawk recovers, it could be released within a month, she added.

How the bird got into such trouble is subject to speculation. Bustamante said the consensus is that the bird probably flew out over the lake and got swept farther than it wanted by the wind, then got exhausted trying to get back to shore.

Or, she said, due to its immaturity, it may simply have been trying to fly across the lake and found out too late that wasn’t a good idea.

Sharp, who has checked with Pine View about the raptor’s progress since they found the bird,  said he’s just happy to have played a role in rescuing it, even though it cut into his fishing outing.

“I don’t care how many fish we could have caught, this was way cooler,” he said. “I feel really good about this. I thought, ‘Wow, Al, we saved a hawk.’”

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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