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Eagle survives encounter with train

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The luck of the Irish was apparently with Whitey, the male half of a New River Gorge nesting bald eagle pair, who was struck by an Amtrak passenger train on St. Patrick's Day and presumed dead -- until he was seen perched on a tree near his nest early Wednesday.

"I think it was the best sight I've seen in my life," said Wendy Perrone, who, along with her husband, Ron, spotted the missing eagle shortly after daybreak.

"We can't tell how badly he got his bell rung," said Ron Perrone. "He's still flying, but there could be a lot that's wrong with him."

About 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, the crew of the eastbound passenger train reported seeing an eagle collide with the locomotive's windshield, and bounce skyward toward the uphill side of the railroad track.

News of the collision was forwarded to the National Park Service, which manages the land on which the eagles have established the nest -- the only confirmed bald eagle nesting site in Southern West Virginia. Park rangers in turn forwarded the report to the Perrones, co-directors of the Three Rivers Avian Center near Brooks in Summers County, a rehabilitation center for injured eagles and other birds of prey, located just a few miles from the collision site.

The Perrones and other birders in the Hinton area have been monitoring the nesting activities of the bald eagle pair, nicknamed Whitey and Streaky, since their nest was discovered on an island in the New River between Hinton and Sandstone in 2010.

Ron Perrone walked the tracks near the scene of the collision on Sunday in an unsuccessful attempt to find the eagle, while his wife and other volunteers kept watch on the nesting site from a hillside vantage point along W.Va. 20. The vigil continued throughout Monday and Tuesday.

"The place where he got hit was near a long, flat stretch of brushy area between the river and the tracks covering acres and acres of land," Perrone said. "I was basically looking for a body along the tracks. But if he got stunned and ended up in that flat stretch, it would have taken a couple of days to find him."

The Perrones theorize that Whitey suffered a concussion during his encounter with the train, and was incapacitated until Wednesday, probably taking shelter in the flat, brushy area.

The couple have treated several raptor-vehicle collision cases "where the birds just sit there for two or three days, and then get better," Ron Perrone said.

 "Sometimes you swear they won't make it through the night," said his wife, "but the next day, they're groggy, but standing up."

The Perrones and several other birders, who watched the nest throughout the day on Wednesday, got a special reward after they saw both birds leave the site at one point during the afternoon to challenge a lone young eagle that was flying nearby.

"When they came off the sycamore to defend their nest, two eggs could be seen inside it," Wendy Perrone said.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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