Life & Style
The Bald Eagle: A Conservation Success Story
Populations of bald eagles in the state have recovered to the point where they are becoming increasingly easier to view along the Connecticut shoreline and in the Connecticut River valley. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Male )
In the winter months, bald eagle pairs rebuild their nests, mate, and both parents take turns incubating the eggs once they are laid. (Photo courtesy of Michael Bennick )
Opportunities to view eagles are available wherever they search for prey or nest. (Photo courtesy of Michale Bennick )
Bird watchers viewing eagles might be rewarded with glimpses of other raptors and wildlife. (Photo courtesy of Mathew Male )
(Photo courtesy of Mia Field )
Eagles, as apex predators, provide an indication of the health of the entire food chain. If waterways are polluted, that can affect insects and small fish, which affects larger fish, which are eaten by the eagles. (Photo courtesy of Mathew Male )
Two adult eagles, with white feathers, accompany a juvenile, with brown feathers. (Photo courtesy of Mathew Male )
Several organizations offer opportunities to view eagles, from the water, from a train, and on land. (Photo courtesy of Jack Faller )
Last month, during the state’s annual bald eagle count, volunteers at the Connecticut River Museum in Essex were treated to 18 sightings of the majestic birds in just one morning. That information was forwarded to the state, which compiles the information every year to monitor the health of bald eagle populations in the state.
While the statewide totals are not yet in for this year, the organizers of the count say they have a problem.
It used to be easy.
Now, with the numbers of the raptors increasing year over year, they’re getting harder to count, and they need more and more volunteers.
It’s a very nice problem to have.
After the birds almost disappeared from the state through the late 1990s, in 2019, Connecticut broke all of its previous records for the number of active territories, with 64, up from 55 the previous year, and numbers of chicks, 81, up from 68 the previous year.
Seven of the nests were reported by long-time volunteers, and five were submitted by what the state called casual observers who just happened to see the eagles in nests around their neighborhoods. The volunteers who help monitor nests for the state Department of Energy & Environmental Projection (DEEP) are just part of a massive rehabilitation effort involving legislation that mandated changes in the way the country prioritized the environment. Those efforts, over the course of decades, helped restore habitats and the health of the bird that is our national emblem.
People who live along the shoreline and in the Connecticut River valley are rewarded for those efforts this time of year, when the foliage drops from trees, and the bald eagle prepares its nest.
In February and March, these increased sightings of bald eagles are celebrated with a variety of events, tours, and other activities.
“Bald eagles are part of the history of the Connecticut River,” said Suzanne Burns, director of education at the Connecticut River Museum. “We are so grateful to have these beautiful birds here; we want to share their story and their history with our visitors.”
From Supreme Symbol to Almost Extinct
The eagle was incorporated into official seal of the United States in 1782 as “the symbol of supreme power and authority,” according to William Barton, the seal designer. Despite the passage of the Bald Eagle Protection Act in 1940, the bird declined to the point where it was almost extinct. A pesticide that started being used in the 1960s, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), was the primary culprit. When exposed to it, the birds absorbed less calcium, weakening the shells on the eggs they laid. When the parents nested over them, the eggs were crushed. In 1973, the use of DDT was banned and the Endangered Species Act was passed. The act found that many kinds of fish, wildlife, and plants had been made extinct due to unfettered economic growth, without regard to conservation and the legislation explicitly stated conservation of importance to the country and its people.
Bald eagles were added to the Endangered Species Act list in 1978, but progress was slow.
By 1999, there were only two nesting territories in Connecticut, for example, and neither produced chicks. Over the course of decades, populations of the bird slowly recovered. By 2007, eagles had recovered to the point where they could be taken off the endangered list. In 2009, nesting territories in the state grew to 19, and there were 31 chicks counted. Volunteers were enlisted to help monitor the populations.
“Managing information on a rapidly expanding population is challenging, and without the dedicated observations of knowledgeable and passionate volunteers statewide, it would be virtually impossible. As the eagle population continues to grow, struggling with the number of nests to monitor is a wonderful problem to have,” says Brian Hess of the DEEP Wildlife Division, in a recent release.
Hess says monitoring the population of the eagles serves a variety of purposes.
“It is wonderful to have these amazing birds back in such great numbers in the state and throughout the country,” says Hess. “They are important parts of the ecosystem and, more importantly, they are a species we rely upon as indicators, meaning that if something is wrong with them, most likely its because something is wrong environmentally, on a much larger scale.”
Since the eagle is an apex predator, at the top of the food chain, if its populations are healthy, that indicates that the food chain is healthy as well.
“What happened was that [DDT] ran off into the waterways and it built up in the insects, then the fish, then the birds so it had a widespread negative effect, which was harming the environment in several ways,” says Hess. “The eagles alerted us to this destruction and by helping them, we were able to help several other animals, fish, insects, and waterways in general.”
In January and February the eagles build their massive nests, which they add to and return to each year. Their mating dance, which involves the couple clasping talons and somersaulting downward in what looks like a death spiral at extremely high speeds, is part of a monogamous pairing that lasts until one of the pair dies. Once the nests are ready, the eggs are laid, and both parents incubate the eggs, with babies hatching through March and May.
Considered sacred spiritual messengers by Native Americans, bald eagles can survive for up to 20 years in the wild and live longer in captivity.
Opportunities to see bald eagles are offered by the Connecticut River Museum, Essex Steam Train, the Audubon Shop in Madison, and Connecticut Audubon at the Shepaug Dam in Southbury.
• The Connecticut River Museum offers annual eagle boat tours will run through March 8 at the museum, 67 Main Street, Essex. This year, the museum’s Winter Wildlife Eagle Cruises will begin inside the museum, with a revamped eagle display. After learning a bit about the birds in the museum, visitors will board a boat, and head out on the river.
Tours will be held Saturdays and Sundays, beginning Saturday, Feb. 15 through Sunday, March 15, several times a day.
On Monday, Feb. 17 at 10 a.m., A Place Called Hope will offer its annual Live Birds of Prey show, featuring a bald eagle and several other species of raptors. This event, free and open to the public and takes place at the Essex Town Hall, 29 West Avenue, Essex.
For more information, visit www.ctrivermuseum.org or call 860-767-8269.
• The Essex Steam Train is offering its Eagle Flyer rides on Saturdays and Sundays through the end of February. The Eagle Flyer offers a 2 ½-hour eco-excursion in the Connecticut River Valley, through forests along the Connecticut River from a heated vintage rail cars. Naturalists will be on board to share their knowledge. More information is available at essexsteamtrain.com.
• RiverQuest is offering wildlife cruises from Eagle Landing State Park in Haddam, featuring eagles, osprey, and other wildlife on Saturdays and Sundays in March, April, and May. More information is available at ctriverquest.com.
• The Audubon Shop in Madison has scheduled eagle watches on the Connecticut River on Saturday, Feb. 15 and Saturday, Feb. 22, both at 8 a.m. These professionally guided car caravans travel to and stop at several different spots along the Connecticut River starting in Haddam and ending with lunch, included in the ticket price, at Otter Cove Restaurant in Old Saybrook. Participants are required to pre-register. More information is available at www.theaudubonshop.com.
• Connecticut Audubon, for those willing to travel a bit further, offers eagle programs run by volunteers at the Shepaug Dam on the Housatonic River in Southbury. The spot holds a special appeal for bald eagles because the hydroelectric station’s operation prevents water from freezing, making it easy for the birds to feed on fish below the dam. Visitors gather in a blind, with spotting scopes set up to provide viewing. Volunteers assist viewers, provide information, and answer questions. Individuals and school groups are welcome. The Shepaug eagle viewing site is open through Sunday, March 8, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Every weekend a Bird of Prey show is presented. More information is available at tinyurl.com/shepaugeagles.