Published March 14. 2014 11:25AM Updated March 14. 2014 11:34AM
Weaving our kayaks among slabs of ice that cluttered the Connecticut River the other day, Ian Frenkel and I steered east toward Nott Island just off Essex, and hadn’t paddled more than 15 minutes when a shadow swept over us. I looked up in time to see a giant raptor with a 6-foot wingspan.
“There’s one!” I cried ... “And another! Look! A third at 2 o’clock!”
Birdwatchers in southeastern Connecticut have enjoyed at least one redeeming benefit from this winter’s relentless frigidity: an abundance of eagles that fly here from Maine, Canada and points north to fish in open water near the mouth of the river.
“This has been a really healthy year,” said Bill Yule, educator/naturalist with the Connecticut River Museum in Essex, when I called him later.
The extreme cold not only has driven the ice farther south, thereby confining eagles to the lower river valley, it also killed off thousands of striped bass in Old Lyme’s Black Hall River, a Connecticut River tributary, drawing an even greater concentration of
the avian fish-eaters, Yule explained.
This year Yule, who has been leading eagle-watching tours for more than a decade, has seen as many as 35 birds in a day’s outing, about a dozen more than in past years’ spotting excursions. He estimated about 50 subadult and 8-10 adult eagles have been spending this winter between the mouth of the river at Long Island Sound and Hamburg Cove in Lyme — though some are beginning to fly back north now.
During a couple hours of paddling covering about 8 miles, during which Ian and I poked into the mostly frozen-over Hamburg Cove, and continued north almost to Selden Island, we spotted at least a dozen eagles, along with assorted winter ducks, Canada geese, swans and other more common species.
On the northeast tip of Nott Island, one pair of eagles perched high on a nest overlooking the river. Yule said eagles have been using this same nest for the past five years, noting that 25-30 chicks have been hatched there.
So far this year there doesn’t appear to be eggs in the nest, but there’s till time, he said.
You don’t have to paddle a kayak to observe eagles. The museum provides a list of numerous viewing sites from land, and also conducts eagle watch excursions by power boat, as does Eagle Landing State Park in Haddam.
At 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. this Saturday and Sunday, March 15-16, the museum, through a partnership with Project Oceanology in Groton, offers its final boat tours of the season. More information about the tours and other museum programs is available at www.ctrivermuseum.org.
It’s wonderful that people have opportunities to view these magnificent birds, our national symbol.
Eagle-watching by kayak requires some effort and cold-weather gear but provides ample rewards. The river can get windy and you have to keep your wits about
you when paddling among ice, but there are fewer sights more thrilling than watching an eagle take flight. I make it a practice, though, as I do with all wildlife, to avoid approaching too closely, lingering or otherwise disturbing the birds.
The public launch adjacent to the museum at the end of Main Street in Essex is an ideal place to launch a kayak; now that the ice is finally breaking up you can also put your boat in the water farther north at Eagle Landing State Park in Haddam, or across the river at launch sites off Ely Ferry Road in Lyme or at the Hadlyme ferry landing.
Though most of the eagles will be back north in a few weeks, some will
remain longer, especially if the nesting birds lay eggs.
Closer to New London, there also are eagles nesting along the Thames River near Poquetanuck Cove in Ledyard and at the Groton Reservoir. The birds also show up occasionally at other ponds and lakes in the region, but without question the lower Connecticut River is the eagle capital of southeastern Connecticut.
Soon enough we’ll also be seeing osprey, great blue herons, egrets and other shore birds – if this winter ever ends.