Who’s watching whom? Eagles and kayakers on the river

“So, do you think any creatures beside humans go out of their way to look at other animals?”

I asked Phil Warner this question last Sunday while our group of seven kayakers paddled on the Connecticut River near Lyme, heads tilted heavenward in hopes of observing bald eagles on the wing.

“I don’t mean hunting prey, or watching for predators, or hooking up with a mate,” I continued. “I’m talking about one just deciding on a whim, ‘Hey, I think I’ll go check out who else is hanging around on the river, see what they’re up to …’”

Phil paused while a flock of Canada geese, startled by the blast of a train whistle across the river, took off with a cacophony of honks.

“Well, dolphins are pretty curious,” he replied. “They sometimes follow boats just for fun …”

“Maybe,” I persisted. “But could be they’re just used to fishermen tossing out fish guts. A free meal …”

“That’s true,” Phil agreed. He thought for another moment, and then concluded, “I guess most animals probably wouldn’t bother tracking other animals just to watch them. Why waste all that energy?”

“My point exactly,” I said.

Humans, on the other hand, are always gallivanting around on wildlife photo safaris, whale-watching and seal-watching cruises, moose tours …

By coincidence, during our eagle-watch voyage, a group of birders here in southeastern Connecticut was participating in the 23rd annual Great Backyard Bird Count, a worldwide event co-sponsored by the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. They carried binoculars and spotting scopes, and stuck to terra firma.

Phil and I were chatting to pass time during a chilly voyage that unfortunately was largely bereft of our quarry. Unlike past winter excursions, when we would see dozens of the majestic birds perched in trees, cruising downriver on ice floes, or swooping so close we could almost touch their talons, this year’s outing produced only a handful of far-away sightings.

“Are those eagles?” Bill Hills asked, squinting at a pair of birds circling in the distance over Hamburg Cove.

“I think they’re crows,” I said.

No matter: Eagles or none, it’s always rewarding to spend time among friends in splendid surroundings.

The Nature Conservancy has proclaimed the lower Connecticut River one of “The World’s Last Great Places, ” while United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization declared it an “Estuary of Global Importance.”

For me, it’s a wonderful place to paddle, close to home.

Also along were Robin Francis, Kurt Hatem, Elyse Landesberg and my son, Tom. We had launched from a public access at the end of Ely’s Ferry Road and began paddling north with a gusty tailwind that barely offset an ebbing tide.

“That southwest breeze is gonna make us work on the way back,” I grumbled.

“Maybe we should have launched at Gillette Castle,” Elyse suggested.

“Too late.”

Normally, eagles migrate from northern New England to the lower Connecticut River Valley this time of year to fish in ice-free water, but this winter, one of the warmest on record, many of the birds apparently are sticking closer to home. During our 10-mile excursion, we did manage to spot four or five soaring so high they might as well have been sparrows.

At least we hadn’t shelled out more than 40 bucks to take an eagle-watching cruise.

A couple of those tour boats passed us, and it didn’t appear that their passengers were having any better viewing luck.

While paddling along the west shore of Selden Island, we did have one surprising encounter: a pair of kayakers preparing to camp in the state park.

They told us they had seen a few eagles farther upriver — but by then we had already covered five miles and were determined to get back before the flood tide turned against us.

At the north end of the island, we steered into Selden Creek and began paddling back south.

“Remember this spot?” I asked Phil. One frigid day a few years ago, the creek had frozen over, and I had to use my kayak as an icebreaker to get through. Back in the main river channel then, we also had to dodge giant floes racing along with the current.

“Clear sailing today,” Phil noted.

Mercifully, the wind dropped off once we exited the south end of Selden Creek, so it was a relatively placid paddle back to Ely’s Ferry Road.

I may embark on one more eagle hunt on the Connecticut this winter, but then again, maybe just wait until spring, when the river comes alive with osprey, great blue herons, sandpipers, egrets, cormorants and countless other species.

The Connecticut is indeed a river for all seasons.

 

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