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Date: Fri 19-Feb-1999

Published: August 10, 1999

ANDY GOROSKO

    Date: Fri 19-Feb-1999

    Publication: Bee

    Author: ANDYG

    Quick Words:

    eagle-observation-area

    Full Text:

    All Eyes On The Eagles

    (with photos)

    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

    human behavior.

    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

    increase.

    Record High

    “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

    another.

    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

    800/368-8954.