Amtrak train strikes eagle in rare encounter

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 3, 2011; 10:26 PM

A symbol of American rail collided with a symbol of American might Thursday on a lonely stretch of track between Wilmington, Del., and Baltimore. Sadly, the bald eagle was no match for the Amtrak passenger train.

The extremely rare encounter happened in a flash, said Craig Koppie, an eagle coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. An adult eagle was enjoying a breakfast of fresh deer carcass that lay across the tracks near Aberdeen, Md., along the heavily used Northeast rail corridor.

As the Northeast Regional 111 train chugged south about 8:30 a.m., an engineer spotted the majestic bird and blasted his horn. At first, the eagle didn't budge, Koppie said. Then it slowly took off - too late. The train arrived at Washington Union Station two hours later with the bird stuck to the locomotive like an emblem.

Bald eagles flourish in the area where the incident took place, at the edge of the U.S. Army Aberdeen Proving Ground, near a northern section of the Chesapeake Bay. The woods in that area are full of deer, and when waters freeze in winter, the eagles are deprived of fish and snack on dead deer.

"But as far as my picking up a call like this, this is a first," Koppie said. Amtrak officials said they don't keep records of eagle or deer strikes.

The incident triggered a small investigation. Eagles are no longer on the endangered species list but are still shielded by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

After an Amtrak police officer pried the bird from the train, he handed it over to federal wildlife workers, who brought it to Koppie.

"It was clearly hit on the left side," resulting in death from blunt-force shock, Koppie said.

If a similar train collision with an eagle was to occur in the near future, federal officials would have a little chat with Amtrak officials, Koppie said. But no one is blaming the engineer.

"Think of how fast a train is moving," he said. "Here you have a snow-covered area and a white-headed bird pretty much hidden. You don't know how high the bird was standing. I'm sure this came up very quick, and he reacted as fast as he could."

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