My bald eagle sightings in the state have been limited to sheer luck and being in the right place at the right time.
Last January, I was walking along the Quinnipiac River Gorge Trail in Meriden when a bald eagle flew mere feet above my head along the river. Prior to that I sighted an eagle high up in a tree as I drove across the old swing bridge connecting Haddam and East Haddam. About a decade separated my two glimpses of our national symbol.
Now, if there was a place I could go in the state that would pretty much guarantee a Haliaeetus leucocephalus sighting…
The Shepaug bald eagle observation area in Southbury – one of the largest concentration of wintering eagles in Connecticut - comes pretty close to that guarantee. Even during this good old fashioned New England winter where everything seems to be frozen tight, the waters of Housatonic River at the Shepaug Dam remains open water year round due to the operation of a hydroelectric station. That means fishing season is always open.
About that guarantee? During the 2010 bald eagle observation season, officials from FirstLight Power Resources noted that an average of six eagles were seen plucking fish out of the water, soaring overhead or perched on trees. So far this year, that average is up to eight raptors. Since the viewing area opened in 1985, more than 130,000 people have seen bald eagles – a raptor that was once very close to extinction.
The observation area is open for eagle viewing through March 16 as eagles make their way from up north seeking open water to feed. Some of the eagles live around the dam year-round. If fishing was this good, I wouldn't leave either. Bald eagles aren't the only ones licking their beaks, other birds seen in the area include red-tail hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, goshawks, great blue herons and a variety of waterfowl.
"The area is situated to help minimize any disruption to the visiting eagles so people can observe these majestic creatures in their normal winter habitat," said Gary Smolen, longtime coordinator of the program. "We love to have kids with their families, seniors and anyone having an appreciation of wildlife come and visit. It's an experience they will not soon forget.
Visitors gather in a blind with spotting scopes and high-powered telescopes set up to provide excellent viewing, but bringing your own binoculars is suggested. Volunteers from the Connecticut Audubon Society can assist viewers, provide information and answer questions.
So if you want to see an eagle, take a quarter out of your pocket. If you want to see the national symbol, take a trip to a dam along the Housatonic River this winter.
The area is open on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. Although admission is free, reservations are required as attendance is limited in order not to spook the birds. Reservations can be made by calling 1-800-368-8954, Tuesday through Friday between the hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. through March 7.