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Connecticut River Wildlife – A Winter Spectacle

Posted on 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


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