Date: Fri 19-Feb-1999
All Eyes On The Eagles
BY ANDREW GOROSKO
Jack Swatt looks intently toward the Housatonic River from its eastern bluff
in Southbury, watching for bald eagles soaring over a black gravel bar in the
gray river just downstream of Shepaug Dam.
In the wintertime, the majestic raptors are drawn southward from frozen Canada
and Maine to the 1,000-foot stretch of river just downstream of the
hyrdoelectric dam where they find perpetually open water and an abundant
supply of fish, their prime food.
Mr Swatt, a volunteer for The Nature Conservancy, is on hand to provide eagle
information to the public at Northeast Utilities’ Shepaug Dam Bald Eagle
Observation and Interpretive Area, a wooden observation post positioned above
a broad slope overlooking the dam and the turbulent waters below it. Mixed
among the flying eagles near the river are gulls, mergansers, swans, geese,
mallards and songbirds.
The observation post provides shelter from the cold and wind. Inside,
observers look out through broad windows toward the river using field glasses
and telescopes. The observation post is flanked with two large,
vertically-slatted bird blinds, providing some visual cover for observers
looking at the birds of prey which have a low tolerance for unpredictable
The observation post is situated about 1,000 feet from the river, a distance
considered sufficient to protect the birds from human interference. Disturbing
the birds is prohibited by state law.
This eagle viewing season, which runs from December 30 to March 17, has been
somewhat spotty, explained David Rosgen, a Northeast Utilities wildlife
biologist who supervises the observation post.
Early on Wednesday, seven bald eagles were spotted near the dam, either
perching or soaring or feeding.
“It started off terrible,” Mr Rosgen said, noting that very few birds were
seen in early January. Warm weather to the north meant the birds did not need
to fly here to find open water and fish.
But when it became cold up north, the birds decided it was time to fly south
and they showed up in large numbers, he said.
On January 13, the number of eagles spotted at the dam really started to
“We established a new record high,” Mr Rosgen said.
On Saturday, February 6, a record 35 individual bald eagles were spotted from
the observation post, Mr Rosgen said. The previous record was 28 individual
eagles spotted during a single day in 1988. The observation area began
operations in the winter of 1985.
Contributing to the record number of eagles observed in a single day was high
water conditions on the river. To handle the high river flows, Northeast
Utilities opened the flood gate on the dam, releasing river water over it.
Opening the gate caused many alewives to flow over the dam, killing them, thus
making thousands of dead fish available for hungry eagles.
“We log (eagles) in as we see them,” Rosgen said as he paged through a
well-thumbed notebook containing information on individual eagles. The notes
describe physical characteristics which differentiate the birds from one
Now that winter weather has been easing after a cold spell, the northward
migration of the eagles has begun, Mr Rosgen said.
By February 10, the number of eagles observed near the dam had dropped, he
said. Last Sunday, 20 eagles were spotted.
Typically, the last eagles of the season leave the dam area in mid to late
March. Immature birds linger longer here because unlike mature birds they do
not have to fly back north promptly to nest and raise their young.
In Connecticut, young eagles typically hatch in the first week of May. In this
state, there are known eagle nests in Barkhamsted and Suffield.
While in the vicinity of Shepaug Dam in the wintertime, the bald eagles roost
but do not nest.
The observation post is managed by Northeast Utilities with the assistance of
The Nature Conservancy. The post was built to ensure the welfare of the
wintering bald eagles and to provide public education on eagles.
Although fish is their most common food, eagles also eat waterfowl, small
mammals and livestock carrion. One of the largest native hawks in North
America, eagles have the best vision of any animal. The birds which live up to
30 years in the wild were designated the national symbol in 1782. The number
of bald eagles is slowly increasing through restoration efforts.
The eagle observation post is open to the public free of charge, but
reservations must be made in advance. For information on visiting, call