Birds of a feather

It's February in Connecticut, so the eagles are back, and they are ready to get on with spring. But unless there's an extra Coast Guard cutter around, the Connecticut Audubon Society's annual eagle watching cruises on the Connecticut River are literally on ice. That's because the River Quest cruise ship is stuck in her moorings at Eagle Landing State Park in Haddam.

"The eagles are here, and there's a bit of a struggle going on," says Priscilla Wood, one of the Society's EcoTravel tour guides in Essex. "The females are heavy with eggs and ready to lay, but their nests are covered with snow and ice. There's not going to be any incubation of eggs at this rate."

The southern Connecticut River is home and a source of accessible fish for migratory golden and bald eagles each January through March as northern waterways freeze. Some of the birds have decided to become year-round residents.

For the past few years, the eagles that nest in the East Haddam stretch of the river have picked Presidents' Day to start laying eggs, Wood says. At least one female has been spotted this year, but it's not clear if she's still trying to chip away at the snow and ice or is settling into a chilly nest. The eagles that nest in Essex are back, too; they usually are on the nest by early February.

Meanwhile, bird watchers can have a much cozier time this Sunday at the Griswold Inn in Essex for the annual benefit concert for CAS EcoTravel and its services. The EcoTravel group, started almost 20 years ago by Andy Griswold, hosts local day trips and overnight natural history tours around the globe, from Block Island, Texas and California to the Amazon, Cuba and Galapagos Islands. New destinations include Greece, Scotland and the Isles of Scilly, off the southwestern tip of England.

This is the fifth year for the benefit concert at the inn, with music by local band Blues on the Rocks, complimentary light snacks, cash bar, dancing and stories by EcoTravel staff and tour fans. Supporters can buy CAS eagle-themed caps, cards and posters. Raffle items include private cooking classes with Amanda Cushman, a great blue heron print by Virge Kask and an eagle-eye overnight package at the Griswold Inn, including tickets for two on the River Quest, which Captains Mark and Mindy Yuknat hope to get back out on the water as early as next weekend.

Snowy owls are the new birding excitement this year, says Wood, who recently took a vanload of people to Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge in Rhode Island, where they spotted four of the owls. There reportedly are about a dozen of the owls in the state, mostly in the marshes and beaches, and not exactly easy to see in the snow.

CAS is hosting a snowy owl observation contest, encouraging observers to submit photos through social media, for a chance to win $300 grand prize and two $100 honorable mentions. It reminds people to take photos from a distance and not crowd the owls.

"People have trended to want to be outdoors over the winter," she says, "so we're offering more hikes and walks outside."

Wood says the eagle cruises, which usually run from early February through mid-March, will probably be extended a couple weekends this year. Daily updates of the RiverQuest status and photos of river ice are at
www.ctriverexpeditions.org.

If the polar vortex hasn't scared us humans away from the outdoors, it hasn't been making winter comfortable for the birds. Especially with these recent snows, Wood recommends keeping bird feeders stocked and fresh supplies of warm water available for birds.

"The birds really need a source of food and water this winter," she says. "People think birds can get their water by eating snow, but it takes a lot of energy for them to eat it."

IF YOU GO

WHAT: Shake away the Winter Blues, Connecticut Audubon Society Eco-Travel benefit doncert with Blues on the Rocks

WHEN: 4-7 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Griswold Inn, 36 Main St., Essex

TICKETS: $35 in advance, online at www.ctaudubon.org/ecotravel/, or $40 at the door

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