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Winter Means Bald Eagles in Connecticut

Photo Credit: Canosa Photography

Iconic and grandiose, the Bald Eagle represents freedom and flight, nature and life and thanks to massive efforts to protect the species, the population of these regal birds is having a resurgence making the shoreline of the Connecticut River a perfect place to catch a glimpse of our nation’s great emblems.

Several resident pairs of bald eagles can be seen perched elegantly on the outstretched dead winter branches of stands of hardwood trees here, and according to Mark Yuknat and his wife Mindy Hill Yuknat who have been running the RiverQuest eagle boat tours up the river for the past 17 years, this year is a great year for eagle sightings.

“This year, the highest number of eagles that were seen on one two-hour tour was 24, says Mark who is always fascinated by the sheer beauty of these kings of the sky.

“We are seeing more adult eagles this year than we have in the past,” adds Mark, who recalls a time a few years back when there was a dead deer carcass on the river that the Eagles, who are opportunistic feeders, were feeding on and a very rare golden eagle was amongst the scavengers.

“That was something to see, he was definitely the leader of the pack and controlled everyone else,” says Mark who explains that golden eagle sightings in the area are very rare.

However, bald eagles, with large brown bodies, snow-white heads and tales, bright yellow beaks, talons and piercing eyes are being spotted on a regular basis, which is great news, and a true testament to the how environmental consciousness and hard work pays off.

Reportedly common in the United States in the 1700s, by the 1960s bald eagle numbers were dangerously low, due in part to their food supplies being contaminated with pesticides, namely DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane the first of the modern synthetic insecticides), which caused the shells of their eggs to be weakened. When the eggs were incubated, they cracked easily killing the baby eagles inside.

In 1972, DDT was banned in the United States, however, the damage had already been done to the bald eagle population and in 1973 the species was officially declared endangered. In 1995 they were removed from the endangered list and transferred to the threatened list, they were removed from that list in 2007 and as of 2018, it was reported that bald eagles once again live in every continental state and province in the United States and Canada. Now that’s a true success story!

“It’s great to see their population is growing again and they seem to be flourishing,” said Cathy Malin, who works with Mark and Mindy on the RiverQuest and has watched these unique creatures through the lens of binoculars for years.

On a recent excursion, a familiar breeding pair that frequents the area of the river in Deep River, was named after a beloved couple who worked at the Connecticut River Museum for years, Bob and Helen. “They were very sweet people so we decided to name the eagle couple after them,” explains Malin.

However, serious and determined, bald eagles are powerful fliers and fierce hunters who don’t mess around; capable of diving at speeds of up to 99 mph, they have wings spans of up to eight feet and talons perfectly equipped for tearing flesh from the bones of small mammals, fish and carrion. Many come to winter in Connecticut because the waters of their homes in Canada and Maine have frozen over. From mid to late February they build their nests, (which are quite large at six to eight feet wide), they then begin laying their eggs and incubation happens March through May. Sharing responsibilities, both male and female eagles incubate the eggs, which is why the RiverQuest stops its eagle tours in mid-March, because they lose half their eagles to egg tending duties and there is not as much activity out on the water.

In the wild, these birds, which are considered sacred to Native Americans, who believe that they are spiritual messengers, can live up to 20 years old, in captivity they can live up to 30 years.

For more information about the RiverQuest Winter Wildlife Eagle Cruises, which last approximately two hours, go to ctriverquest.com. Cruises depart from the Connecticut River Museum Steamboat Dock at the end of Main Street, in Essex.

There is always a Naturalist on board the 64’ vessel to narrate the experience, and ticket holders also get entrance to the Connecticut River Museum which has a very special Eagles of Essex exhibit to view. The boat has a heated cabin, however, seasonal dress is suggested as the best views of the birds is from the open-air decks.

New for the 2019 season, the RiverQuest has added a Wednesday cruise at 2:00pm. They also offer Saturday and Sunday cruises at 9 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. as well as Friday cruises at 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. The last cruise this season will be on March 17.

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