Bald eagle nursed back to health, set free in Florida

MARATHON, Fla — After a six-hour car ride wearing blinders, and another few minutes to have blood drawn and bands wrapped around its claws while 30 people gawked, the young bald eagle known as No. 303 was ready to fly the coop.

Mary Barley, a well-known environmentalist in the Florida Keys, was handed the nationally protected bird that just 33 days earlier was found struggling in the ocean, too weak to perch on a piling. In a clearing full of prickle bushes at Curry Hammock State Park, the blinders were removed and Barley bade the eagle farewell.

In a flash, the magnificent raptor spread its wings spanning nearly six feet and took off like a dragster. As it soared over the crowd, power lines and trees, becoming a blur in the cloudy sky, cheers erupted. "My heart felt like it was pounding out of my chest," Barley said. "I tried to stay calm, so the bird would feel calm. But it's so awesome to be part of something like this, sending an eagle back into the wild where it belongs."

The saga began on May 11, when the bald eagle was spotted by charter boat captain Byron Farness and two tourists from the United Kingdom who were fishing near Duck Key.

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