In an emotion-wrought Sunday ceremony in the Gunpowder River watershed, a bald eagle spread his wings for the first time since being rescued, water-logged and cold, from the Chesapeake Bay.
Nicknamed “Ernie the Eagle”, the male bald eagle was found distressed in early January, floating at the surface of the Bay south of Dares Beach in southern Maryland. A boat crew stumbled upon him while volunteering as a search crew for missing boater Ernie Sigmon.
Sigmon, a 44-year-old father of two who disappeared from his boat on Dec. 29, 2021, has still not been recovered from the Bay. But amid the tragedy, searchers did save the life of the eagle. Carlos Gautier, Steven Gray, and charter captain Stacey Witherow helped the eagle, which was then unable to fly, carefully onto their boat with a net, and brought it to shore. The captain’s wife, Andi Witherow, had warm blankets ready in the car and the couple made the long drive from southern Maryland to Phoenix Wildlife Rescue in northern Baltimore County.
Witherow tells Bay Bulletin that Ernie was given an IV and gradually warmed up. He luckily appeared to have no other symptoms, and by late February was ready for release. That release took place at Phoenix Wildlife Rescue on Sunday, and Ernie’s rescuers watched the majestic bird go free.
It was emotional for the wildlife handlers as well as the rescuers when a prayer was read for the eagle and for all those on the water. Carlos Gautier captured this video of those moments:
For Gautier, the eagle is a beacon of strength through the tragedy of losing Ernie Sigmon at sea and losing Gautier’s own mother just two days before the eagle’s release. And he calls the release itself “a symbol of peace for all who have been affected by these tragedies.”
The family of Ernie Sigmon still walks the shorelines when they can and searches for any sign of him. Sigmon’s daughter remained in Maryland after Christmas break rather than returning to college in South Carolina. They’re in close touch with the Maryland Natural Resources Police (NRP) who continue their own search.
Lauren Moses, NRP spokeswoman, tells Bay Bulletin, “The Maryland Natural Resources Police remains committed to locating the missing boater, Ernie Sigmon. Our officers have conducted both sonar and surface searches along with our dive units. They are currently searching the surrounding areas around the GPS tracks of Sigmon’s vessel.”
-Meg Walburn Viviano & Cheryl Costello