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Archive for February, 2018

Connecticut River Wildlife – A Winter Spectacle
February 16, 2018

Eagle Flyer“In the bleak mid-winter,” the old carol goes, “Frosty wind made moan/Earth stood hard as iron/Water like a stone.” And yet, even in this dead season, there are signs of life. Outside, tracks in the snow tell of the busy movements of animals — deer, raccoon, squirrels, rabbits, foxes, and coyotes — all on a desperate hunt for food. Winter quicken the senses.

Sounds carry farther with the leaves off the trees. In the dry, brittle cold you hear everything. The shrill piecing cry of a Red-tailed Hawk breaks the silence of the morning. Gazing up, you see the hawk’s dappled gray plumage, rust-colored tail feathers banded with black – a thrilling sight on a gray winter day.

Meanwhile, down along the Connecticut River things are changing. The massive ice jam, locking up the river for more than a month, finally eased its grip. The waterway is flowing free; the wide expanse is an intense blue, framed by low hills, dusky purple in slanting winter light. Nearby, the marsh wears its rusty brown winter cloak.

Alas, our friends, the stately wading birds – great blue herons and snowy egrets, are absent from the marsh, having migrated south for winter. Gone too are the osprey or fish hawks, whose nesting platforms put out for them above the reeds, now stand empty. They will be back soon enough. Days are getting longer – life is beginning to stir.

Meanwhile, great flocks of wintering ducks are still to be seen – showy, crested mergansers skimming in a line just above the water; great numbers of dusky coots floating lazily in the current; long-neck cormorants diving for fish, and striking red-throated loons from the Arctic. Then, there are the majestic bald eagles – several dozen birds or more – joining a resident population of about a dozen nesting birds. It’s a winter spectacle!

We owe this great winter great gathering to the Connecticut River’s special ecology, according to Phil Miller, resident naturalist at the Bushy Hill Nature Center in the Ivoryton section of Essex. While not the biggest river around, the Connecticut is mighty in terms of freshwater discharge. “It’s a voluminous river,” Miller says. “This makes it rich in wildlife, especially in winter.”

“When rivers and lakes in Canada are locked in ice, the Connecticut is open near the mouth,” Miller continued. “We have an abundant fishery. These factors make the river prime winter habitat for bald eagles, and other species from the North. On rare occasions, you can glimpse a golden eagle. They are spectacular birds. Did you know that in a dive golden eagles can reach speeds of nearly 200 miles per hour? That’s really something!”

~Erik Hesselberg

 

Wildlife on the Connecticut River – Snowy Owl Irruptions
February 12, 2018

Arctic Ghosts in Connecticut

Connecticut birdwatchers are enjoying a real treat — an influx of great snowy owls, a phenomenon known as an “irruption.” The ghostly white arctic birds have been spotted this winter in significant numbers along the shoreline as well as inland, and along the lower Connecticut River.

Snowy owls sightings have been reported at Stonington Point, Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison, the Connecticut Audubon Society’s Coastal Center at Milford Point in Milford, and Stratford Point, according to the Hartford Courant.  A snowy was also spotted in a park in suburban Bristol, and another in Haddam, hanging out on the pack ice just off Haddam Meadows State Park.Such irruptions of “snowies,” as they are known, is not all that unusual, scientists say. The winter of 2013-14 also saw an irruption of snowy owls in Connecticut. It was thought that these southerly migrations were prompted by a scarcity of prey in the arctic (lemmings and voles are owl’s preferred food.) However, with rodent populations abundant there, scientists now believe the migrations are a result of a highly successful breeding season, producing more birds which are compelled to seek new hunting grounds.

Snowy owls are mostly white with narrow, sparse brown bars and spots. Perhaps their most prominent feature is their golden eyes, giving them a haunting stare. They are among the largest North American owl species.

Winter is a great time for birdwatching on the lower river. With the leaves off the trees, it’s easier to spot and identify bird species. From December to March along the river, you’re likely to see perched on a solitary dead tree, or soaring high above the water, the snowy crest of another visitor from the north — Haliaeetus leucocephalus, the America bald eagle. These majestic birds fly down from Canada to fish in the open waters of the estuary. Eagles join a variety of winter ducks — crested mergansers, dusky coots, and snaky-necked cormorants, seen plunging below the water fish. Most striking are the red-throated loons, another symbol of the frozen north. It’s also not uncommon to see harbor seals frolicking in the icy river waters.
As for spotting a snowy owl, a longtime birder said to look for a knot of people bundled up against the cold, with binoculars and spotting scopes, all trained at something in the distance. It’s probably a snowy owl! Happy birding!

— Erik Hesselberg

There are still seats available on our Eagle Flyer Eco-Excursions Feb 17-19 & 24-25

Eagle Flyer

 

Wildlife on the Connecticut River – Eagles
February 1, 2018

The eagles are back in town!

The Connecticut River area is home to myriad wildlife:  deer, coyotes, harbor seals, wild turkeys, various eagle and hawk species, loons, and other fowl.

One of the most majestic of these species can be seen soaring through the skies along the Connecticut River Valley during the winter months.  The bald eagle, which has been the national emblem of the United States since June 20, 1782, makes its way back to Connecticut each year.  This impressive bird represents the American spirit, especially with the incredible recovery it has made in recent years.  

The bald eagle is listed as a threatened species in Connecticut, but for many years it was an endangered species.  Its populations were decimated due to the use of the pesticide DDT, loss of natural habitat, and illegal hunting.  Lucky for us, the bald eagle population is on the rise again after the United States banned DDT and efforts were made to protect not only its habitats but its nests as well.

Bald eagles return to Connecticut during the winter because the land and waters in Canada are frozen.  According to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), we have about 100 bald eagles that winter here in Connecticut.  They return to the same spot each year to nest.

Even with their stately white crowns, imposing wingspan, and graceful flight, there is one well-known historical figure who disagreed with America’s choice of the bald eagle as our country’s emblem.  Ben Franklin wrote, “For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”  He even described the bald eagle as having “bad moral character.”

Despite whatever moral character they may or may not have, bald eagles are a romantic sort, not conforming to specific gender roles.  They mate for life.  They build their nests together.  They even share parenting duties taking turns to roost and feed their young.

So grab your binoculars and your camera!  You can join an excursion that will bring you into the heart of the Connecticut River Valley where you’ll have the potential to witness the majesty of the bald eagle and other wildlife in person.  The Eagle Flyer heads out on February 17th, 18th, 19th, 24th, and 25th and Master Wildlife Conservationists from DEEP will be on board to share their knowledge and guide the tour.  Tickets are on sale now at http://essexsteamtrain.com/seasonal-excursions/eagle-flyer/.  You never know; you might even catch a glimpse of Mr. Franklin’s preferred national emblem.

-Elizabeth Scanlon