They’re Back!

The Watch Is On As Eagles Return To The Litchfield Hills

Some snowbirds head to Florida in the winter, but the majestic American bald eagle doesn’t have to travel so far for a choice retreat. Every year Bald Eagles fly down from more frigid climes in search of the annual fish buffet provided by the running waters of the Shepaug Dam on the Housatonic River in Southbury, a town in Connecticut’s Litchfield Hills. They favor this spot because the turbulence of the dam water pushes the fish to the surface where eagles can swoop down and feast on their favorite dish.

The bald eagle is a bird of prey found in North America — its range includes most of Canada and Alaska, all of the contiguous United States, and northern Mexico. It is found near large bodies of open water with an abundant food supply and old-growth trees for nesting.

The adult Bald Eagle is mainly brown with a white head and tail, with  large and hooked beaks. The plumage of the immature is brown. Bald Eagles are not actually bald; the name derives from the older meaning of the word, “white headed”.

In the late 20th century the Bald Eagle was on the brink of extirpation in the continental United States, while flourishing in much of Alaska and Canada. Populations recovered and stabilized, so the species was removed from the U.S. federal government’s list of endangered species and transferred to the list of threatened species on July 12, 1995, and it was removed from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in the Lower 48 States on June 28, 2007.

The Bald Eagle requires old-growth and mature stands of coniferous or hardwood trees for perching, roosting, and nesting. Selected trees must have good visibility, an open structure, and proximity to prey, but the height or species of tree is not as important as an abundance of comparatively large trees surrounding the body of water. Forests used for nesting should have a canopy cover of no more than 60 percent, and no less than 20 percent, and be in close proximity to water.

The best place to watch the swoops and glides of these graceful winter guests is the Eagle Observation Area near the Shepaug Housatonic Hydroelectric Station, where an organized eagle watch takes place every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. through mid-March. Wednesdays are popular with school groups.

In spite of the record snowfalls in 2011, 3,500 visitors came to the Shepaug Dam. On an average day, they saw seven eagles, but lucky viewers on the best days spotted as many as 21 eagles. The low count day saw only one lone eagle. Chances are best on cold clear days when the surfaces of most other rivers and ponds have frozen. Over 133,00 people have visited the observation area since it was opened to the public in 1986.

The shelter, maintained by FirstLight Power Resources, is located 1000 feet from the river, affording safety for the eagles while providing an excellent vantage point. High powered telescopes are set up on tripods for visitors and volunteers from Connecticut Audubon are on hand to assist in spotting ad answer questions about the birds. The volunteers have set up an informative web site with facts and figures about these fascinating birds.

Admission to the viewing area is free, but advance reservations are required to insure that the observation site is not overcrowded. They can made by calling (800) 368-8954 Tuesday through Friday, between the hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.

The volunteer web site, www.shepaugeagles.info, has many tips for visitors. Among them is the advice to dress warmly in layers and to allow plenty of time to wait for the eagle action to begin.

For more information on the eagles and other winter activities and a free copy of UNWIND, a 112-page color guide to lodging, dining and all the attractions in the Litchfield Hills, contact the Western Connecticut Visitors Bureau, PO Box 968, Litchfield, CT 06759, (860) 567-4506, or visit the web site at www.litchfieldhills.com.

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