Eagles Cruises, Wildlife Programs Show a Different Side of the Connecticut River
Because the Lower Connecticut River stays ice-free for most of the season, it serves as a winter gathering place for many species, including eagles and the humans who hope to see them. For those who’d like to take a closer look, several local organizations have programs that make the most of eagle season, from guided tours, a birding-train ride, and eagle shows to classes on bird photography.
The annual Eagles of Essex exhibit has returned to the Connecticut River Museum, providing information about the birds and their habitat and documenting the species’ return to the lower Connecticut River after population decline. The exhibit is interactive; visitors can try building a nest themselves, compare themselves to life-sized silhouettes of various birds, and check a map for the best shore view spots.
In conjunction with the exhibit, photographer Stanley Kolber will offer two Saturday bird photography workshops on Feb. 11 and March 11 at 2:30 p.m. To find out more about Kolber’s program, see page 27. The museum is also offering a free live birds of prey show at the Centerbrook Meeting House on Sunday, Feb. 19 at 4 p.m., in partnership with Horizon Wings Raptor Rehabilitation Organization. Attendees will have the opportunity to get a close look at a bald eagle and other raptors, while learning about their life cycles.
Additionally, CT RiverQuest will launch its winter wildlife eagle cruises from the dock at the Connecticut River Museum. Visitors will be able to explore the lower Connecticut River on an eco-tour and see a variety of wildlife, including the bald eagles for which the cruise is named.
“Ice conditions in previous years further up the river caused us to lose business,” said Captain Mark Yuknat, owner of CT RiverQuest. “We’ve worked with the museum before on spring education programs. When they approached us, we thought it would be a good partnership.”
As the weather changes, the cold drives birds further south to look for open water where they can fish, according to Yuknat. Even though this winter has been warmer than average, Yuknat still expects wildlife to move towards the river mouth, and that visitors would see between 20 and 30 eagles on a given trip. There is a population of about 50 eagles in the state, and six to seven local nests along this section of the river, plus immature birds and visiting birds.
“We’ll still see ducks from far north,” said Yuknat, referring to migratory species that come to this area regardless of weather. “There’s also hawks, sometimes bobcats, fisher cats, plenty of wildlife.”
In addition to the birds and beasts, the river looks completely different in winter; without the spring and summer foliage, it becomes possible to see what’s in the woods, including rock formations and even more wildlife.
“Most of the comments center on, ‘Oh my, I never though the river looked like this,’” said Yuknat. “And these are people who might live only 15 minutes away. It’s a real oasis between Boston and New York City.
“You just never know what you’re going to see,” continued Yuknat. “As a bonus, because of the partnership the ticket price also includes admission to the museum itself, and there’s a great exhibit on the eagles and their habitat.”
“The eagles are the highlight,” said Caleb Lincoln, a docent at the Connecticut River Museum. “But there are also harbor seals, ducks that are only here in winter. But one of the best things is just being out on the river by yourself, it’s pretty much empty at this time of year. The scenery is pretty magnificent.”
Guests are encouraged to bring a camera and dress for the cold—there is a heated cabin, but the best views are seen from the deck itself. On board there are binoculars to borrow, if guests don’t bring their own, and coffee and tea are served as well. Cruises are recommended for children aged 10 and older.
Cruises run from Saturday, Feb. 4 to Sunday, March 19 and are two hours long. They leave from the Connecticut River Museum dock on Fridays at 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., and on Saturdays and Sundays at 9 a.m., 11:30 a.m., and 2 p.m. Tickets are $40 and can be purchased online at either www.ctriverquest.com or www.ctrivermuseum.com or by calling the Connecticut River Museum for assistance during normal opening hours at 860-767-8269.
Don’t want to be out on the water? Essex Steam Train is bringing back the Eagle Flyer, a 2 ½ hour train ride through the Connecticut River Valley with wildlife conservationists from Connecticut’s Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP). The vintage train ride starts In Essex and makes stops to pick up passengers in Deep River, Chester, and Haddam. Cars are heated and there is an at-seat cash food and beverage service. There is Dining Car service on the Meriden, and 2017 will mark the seasonal excursion’s most northerly public trip up the Valley. First class tickets are $40 all ages, coach tickets are $25 for adults and $15 for children; all riders under two years old ride free. The Eagle Flyer runs Saturday, Feb. 18 to Monday, Feb. 20 and Saturday, Feb. 25 to Sunday, Feb. 26, with 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. departures from Essex. More information is available by calling 860-767-0103 or visiting www.essexsteamtrain.com.
For those who would rather wait until the weather is a little bit warmer, the CT Audubon Society EcoTravel will offer two eagle and osprey cruises on Saturday, April 29, at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
“We go in the spring when it’s a little warmer,” said Priscilla Wood, sales and marketing manager at CT Audubon Society EcoTravel. “The eagles have hatched their chicks, the osprey have returned to the area and are building their nests for summer. The whole spring rebirth thing is happening at that time.”
On the approximately 2 ½ hour tours, attendees will leave from Eagle Landing State Park in Haddam with professional naturalists in search of bald eagles, golden eagles, osprey, and other migratory and nesting birds. The tours occur on the Becky Thatcher, a three-deck vessel with restrooms, a galley, and great viewing opportunities. More information can be found by calling 860-767-0660; tickets are $40, and the tours are recommended for children aged eight and older, and spaces are already filling up. The non-profit organization has offered these tours for more than 20 years.