SAN RAMON -- As the female golden eagle was finally released into the wilderness, its wings propelled it gracefully into the sloping green hills of Las Trampas Regional Park.
And for everyone gathered, it was hard not to think what a long and strange flight, it has been for "Mitey Mite."
The female golden eagle, given that nickname during eight months of treatment and recovery at UC Davis' School of Veterinary Medicine's California Raptor Center, emerged a survivor from a mite infestation researchers are still trying to identify and understand.
And as the creature swirled and swooped through a sunny blue sky Friday morning during her official release into the wilderness, many of the crowd gathered -- a team of rescuers from UC Davis, East Bay Regional Park District and California Department of Fish and Wildlife -- gasped, oohed and ahhed, applauded and let out an "attagirl!" was they watched her glide majestically through the air.
"She just took a lovely glide that way," said Michelle Hawkins, director of the UC Davis California Raptor Center, admiringly as she watched the eagle land on the high hill.
"I was just happy to see what a beautiful first flight she took."
The eagle was first was spotted in the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area by K. Shawn Smallwood, an independent researcher who noticed right away there was something odd about the bird, because she had missing feathers and a naked head and neck.
He alerted East Bay Regional Park wildlife biologist Doug Bell, and together, they spent several weeks trying to capture the creature, after again spotting her at Brushy Peak Regional Preserve near Livermore. They trapped her and transferred her to UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine hospital and then brought her to the California Raptor Center, where staff nursed her back to a full recovery.
When first brought in, the bird's head and neck were naked, and her leg and belly had patches of crusty and bare skin, Hawkins said: "I don't know if you've ever seen a Shar Pei dog before, that's what she looked like when she first came into us."
Her first rescuers first named her "Griffy," due to her uncanny resemblance to the griffon vulture, with her bald head -- but over time, as she transformed after extensive rehabilitation, she was given a new name, more fitting to her triumphant comeback: "Mitey Mite."
The mite infestation of golden eagles is of great concern because "it's a new occurrence," said Krysta Rogers, an environmental scientist for California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Also, the type of mite responsible hadn't been previously identified, she said, though other types of mite infestations have occurred in domestic birds, such as parrots and poultry.
"They are an important component of biodiversity in the natural world," Bell said. "And you can find images (of golden eagles) in the old world, the new world, and Native Americans even accord spiritual powers to them. Likewise, countries like Mexico have it on their national flag, and eagles have been on the weapons of Rome going back to ancient times."
"So, humans have always accorded a special power to golden eagle, but they are all beautiful, majestic creatures on their own," he said.
Contact Joyce Tsai at 925-847-2123. Follow her at Twitter.com/JoyceTsaiNews.
State wildlife officials are asking residents to be on the lookout for other golden eagles or birds that appear to be suffering from feather loss. If you encounter such a bird,don't trap it yourself; contact a local licensed wildlife rehabilitation center for assistance at http://www.dfg.ca.gov/wildlife/WIL/rehab/facilities.html