When you think of birds flying south for the winter, you probably don't imagine that their warm weather destination is... Connecticut!
From January through March, though, many Bald Eagles (and occasionally some Golden Eagles) leave their homes in Canada and other points north for the warmer winter waters of the lower Connecticut River. According to the Connecticut Audubon Society, the Connecticut River Valley's winter population of eagles can number as many as 100 birds.
One of the best ways to view these spectacular eagles is to book passage aboard a winter eagle watch cruise. The Connecticut Audubon Society will sponsor a number of Eagle Boat Cruises during the winter of 2014. The cruises, which are operated by RiverQuest/Connecticut River Expeditions, depart from Eagle Landing State Park in Haddam, Connecticut, on Thursdays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. from February 13 through March 13 and on Saturdays and Sundays at 9 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. from February 8 through March 16. The eagle-watching excursions, which run about two hours and 15 minutes, give birdwatchers many opportunities to see the majestic eagles perched and in flight as the cruise boat makes its way along a route that varies based on recent eagle spottings.
For 2014, Winter Eagle Watch cruise prices are $40 for all; passengers must be at least 10 years old. Reservations are a must and may be made online or by calling Connecticut Audubon Society EcoTravel at 860-767-0660.
Eagle-Eye Overnight packages are also being offered with accommodations at The Griswold Inn in Essex, Connecticut, or directly across the river from the boat launch at Gelston House in Haddam. Call 860-767-0660 for package details and pricing.
To improve your chance of getting a good view of the eagles and other birds, bring along a strong pair of binoculars and a camera with a good telephoto lens. As you can see from the photo in the slide show above (click the image to launch the slide show), even with a 10X zoom, my digital camera couldn't quite bring the bald eagles along the shoreline into view.
Keep in mind as you're preparing for your eagle cruise that even on what might be considered a sunny and mild winter day in Connecticut, the temperatures on the river can be quite a bit colder, and it's quite windy on the water, too. Although you can find warmth and protection from the wind on the riverboat's lower deck, you'll have better views of the birds and the winter scenery if you can brave the cold on the outside deck. You won't regret bringing along an extra scarf and a pair of earmuffs.
Eagle Watch Boat Tours will also be offered by the Connecticut River Museum from February 1 through March 16, 2014. Departures from the museum in Essex, Connecticut, are scheduled for Fridays at 1 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. These 90-minute trips are suitable for ages 6 and up. Tickets are $40 including museum admission. For reservations and details, call 860-767-8269, ext. 110.
If a cruise isn't quite your speed and you'd still like to see eagles while they're "vacationing" in Connecticut, here are a few other options:
Annual Eagle Watches on the Connecticut River - Haddam, CT
Eagle enthusiasts will enjoy land-based guided tours of several sites along the Connecticut River that allow for excellent eagle viewing. Tours begin at Eagle Landing State Park in Haddam, Connecticut, (or meet at the Audubon Shop in Madison) and are followed by a luncheon at Oliver's Restaurant & Taverne in Essex. 2014 dates are February 1, 8, 15 and 22 and March 1 and 8 from 8:30 a.m. (7:45 if leaving from the shop) to about 1:15 p.m. Call ahead for reservations: Pre-registration is required, and tours often sell out. The tour price is $20 including lunch. For more information and reservations, call 203-245-9056 or toll free, 888-505-9056.
Shepaug Dam Bald Eagle Observation Area - Southbury, CT
Connecticut Audubon Society staff naturalists and volunteers will be on-hand to provide information and answer questions at the Shepaug Dam Bald Eagle Observation Area in Southbury through March 7, 2014 on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. Reservations are required and may be made by calling toll free, 800-368-8954, between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays through March 5. There is no fee.
All Aboard the Eagle Flyer - Essex, CT
Essex Steam Train will operate its Eagle Flyer train rides on February 15 and 16, 2014. Bring your binoculars, and spy eagles with the help of on-board naturalists as you enjoy a leisurely train ride through the Connecticut River Valley. Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for children ages 2 to 11, and they can be purchased by calling 860-767-0103 or toll free, 800-377-3987. The Eagle Flyer departs from Essex Station in Essex, Connecticut, at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. for these two-and-a-half-hour trips.