Mark Stein was walking his dog Mocha along a path close to the Potomac River the evening of April 3 when he came across a bird with dark brown and red feathers and a long black and white banded tail.
It was an adult red-shouldered hawk lying on the ground, barely moving.
“She was a few feet off the path, and she was staring at us,” Stein said.
Stein, a technical writer from Bethesda, kept going but couldn’t get the hawk out of his mind. The next morning, he went back to find the bird in the same spot. He called the police, who in turn asked rangers from the National Park Service to intervene.
On Friday, the hawk was released into the wild at Turkey Run Park in McLean, and Stein got to see it for the first time since it went into treatment in April.
“I’m just thankful she’s alive and is being released,” Stein said.
The red-shouldered hawk, though not on the federal list of endangered species, is considered threatened in various states, according to Gabby Hrycyshyn, a volunteer with the Raptor Conservancy of Virginia, which treated the bird found by Stein.
The species, a common sight among the treetops in Northern Virginia, also can be found in eastern North America and along the coast of California.
In many cases, injured animals are too hurt to be released after treatment, dead when found or never found. Few people stick with the birds until authorities arrive as Stein did, said Eric Oberg, a biologist with the Park Service who helped capture the hawk.
“It’s rare that we get a happy ending or success story with this type of thing,” Oberg said. He added that an average of 35 birds a year are found dead along George Washington Memorial Parkway.
Hrycyshyn said the bird was most likely injured by a car, given that about 80 percent of injured birds along the parkway are hit by vehicles.
Hrycyshyn explained that birds of prey such as the red-shouldered hawk often swoop down toward the road to catch rodents that are attracted to garbage people throw from cars and trucks. Inevitably, some of the birds are unable to swerve out of the way of oncoming vehicles.
The red-shouldered hawk released Friday arrived at the conservancy’s facilities in April with a concussion that required weeks of recovery. The bird received antibiotics and daily supervision as well as a form of physical therapy in a specialized flight cage in which it was able to strengthen its muscles.
“She’s ready to go,” Hrycyshyn said as she opened up the cardboard box used to transport the hawk to the park.
The bird emerged looking dazed and confused with ruffled feathers and gaping beak. It soon regained its composure and almost seemed to be posing for photographs as it flew to the treetops and out of sight. Spectators such as Melanie LaForce clapped in appreciation.
LaForce, a board member of the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia, brought her husband and two daughters to witness the hawk’s release in part to see a bird of prey up close but also to show support for the efforts of those who rescue, treat and release wild birds.
LaForce has converted her back yard in Arlington into a nationally designated natural habitat for local and migratory wildlife. For her, the hawk represents her Virginian home, which made her especially proud of the effort to save and release one.
“They’re part of our Virginian history,” she said.