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Wings Over The Shepaug Dam



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Wings Over The Shepaug Dam

By Kendra Bobowick

As if stretching its limbs after a comforting night’s sleep, the eagle lazily unfurls its wings to drift along eddies of air over the river.

“The beauty you see watching it fly is really what captivates people, seeing them soaring and perching,” said Shepaug Bald Eagle Observation Area employee Lucy Walker.

Guests may catch the birds in flight, or maybe not.

Eagles may either perch or hunt along the riverbanks near the Shepaug Dam bracketing the Southbury end of Lake Zoar. Open since December 27 for its 22nd season, the observation area at the dam again welcomes sightseers to glimpse the birds of prey through March 14. The winged hunters could be found resting in a tree or swooping toward a fish or rodent.

Past seasons hold moments of surprise. “Memorable are the spring days when they do acrobatics, that’s a neat day,” said Gary Smolen, a senior engineer for NE Energy Inc, which recently purchased the hydropower generation plants associated with the dam. He also is the eagle observation program director.

Naming other highlights, he said, “High number counts [of eagles] is another great day; those are always positive days.”

There are no guarantees about what guests will witness at the observatory. Likely, however, are the chances of spotting a bird in this area at this time of year. Specifically, they are not nesting, as some observers may think, said Ms Walker. The birds are after a food supply.

“Winter is a delicate time and [eagles] are looking for a food source,” Mr Smolen said.

Ms Walker added, “Their main diet is fish, but if they see an injured duck they might take that.” Elaborating, she said, “They’re not scavengers, but are opportunists, and they will steal from each other.”

Explaining their seasonal arrival in Connecticut, Mr Smolen said, “They migrate from the north where the water ices over.” The hydroelectric plant generates enough turbulence to keep the water ice-free, he explained. “That’s what attracts the eagles.”

And the eagles attract the sightseers, who must observe with caution.

“We walk a delicate line. We want to share this majestic bald eagle, but in our eagerness to bring people in we don’t want to scare the eagle away,” he said. Observation times on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays between 9 am and 1 pm are free, but the number of visitors is limited, also as a precaution.

“We keep a respectful distance,” to prevent crowding the birds or their hunting grounds, Mr Smolen said.

Further explaining the eagles’ circumstances, Ms Walker said that although insulated from the cold, they often perch quietly to save energy — another reason not to invade their space.

“They do perch and sit still a majority of the time,” she said. “They’re about conserving energy and won’t go after a fish until it’s known [they will catch it]. That’s why it’s important not to disturb a bird.”

Offering one likely scenario for eagle gazers, she said, “If you stop the car and get out they fly, then you’ve just caused them to use energy.” Mr Smolen offers another reason that observers would want to keep at a distance.

“Many eagles born earlier this year are facing a difficult time — can they survive their first winter?”  Many don’t, he said.

“If we disturb them it adds to the natural dangers,” Mr Smolen explained.

The national bird prompts several inquiries that he and Ms Walker anticipate based on past crowds.

“I think there was an eagle at the birdfeeder,” Ms Walker said, echoing one question she often fields from guests, which reveal misunderstandings, she notes.

“The first misconception is the size of the bird,” she said. “It could be three feet tall with a seven foot wingspan.” She reiterates also, that an eagle’s main diet is fish.

Come & Observe

Volunteers and staff who can answer questions will greet guests arriving at the Shepaug observation site. Spotting scopes are available, and personal binoculars and cameras are welcome. Visitors are treated to conversations with birders, for example, and accompanied to a building with doors and windows opened wide for a better view of the wooded shoreline surrounding the dam.

“You need to dress for the weather; it’s not a heated building,” Mr Smolen said.

While an eagle may not present itself necessarily, the panorama holds a host of birds, gulls, ducks, geese, and other “backyard birdfeeder birds,” he said. Mr Smolen also quipped that the occasional fox or deer will wander into view.

People will notice eagles in different stages of maturity. Ms Walker said, “Younger birds take five to six years for full white heads and tails to develop.”

She said, “People may ask, ‘Why is that bird dirty?’ but [the eagle] is maybe four and starting to develop the white head and tail.”

Offering a piece of trivia about the eagle’s gender, she said the female is larger than the male, “Because she lays eggs.”

Distinguishing the migratory eagles that travel from Maine or Canada, for example, is difficult, but some local birds are tagged, and therefore recognizable.

Birds are tagged to help track the population.

“That will give us information, but it is rare to see a banded bird,” Ms Walker said.

The bald eagle is on the federal endangered species list, and also ranks on the state’s endangered species list. Ms Smolen believes the bird will remain on Connecticut’s list “forever,” he said.

“By leaving it on the state list it draws attention to the lack of habitat in Connecticut,” Mr Smolen said. “The eagles fish and nest along the shoreline and in Connecticut, people like to be there too and there is not a lot of territory left.” Drawing a drastic comparison, he described an alternate habitat of eagles in Alaska.

“Eagles there are like pigeons here,” he said. “They have great water sources and few people to interfere.”

Eagle facts and history can be found at baldeagleinfo.com.

Until 1995, the bald eagle had been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 43 of the 48 lower states, and listed as threatened in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Washington, and Oregon. In July of 1995, the US Fish and Wildlife Service upgraded the status of bald eagles in the lower 48 states to “threatened.”

Possession of a feather or other body parts of a bald eagle is a felony.

Other Raptors Make An Appearance

Tricia Lombardi with the Connecticut Audubon Center in Fairfield gave a demonstration to observation area guests about birds of prey. With her were Jolene, a red-tailed hawk, and Milton, a barn owl, who both eyed the crowd with a wary stare. Unlike Milton, who was raised in captivity, Jolene is a rescue from the wild. The hawk had injured a wing she caught on a strip of barbed wire, and a man later found her in a field where he was able to get her help despite her jagged claws. Ms Lombardi told the birds’ tales and explained that Jolene’s wing is now clipped.

She introduces a variety of birds of prey to the observation area other than the majestic bald eagle. Each Wednesday the center provides a brief and educational introduction to the birds.

The observatory is open on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays between 9 am and 1 pm. Admission is free. Reservations are required. To place a reservation for a group, family, or individual, call 800-368-8954 between 9 am and 3 pm Tuesday through Friday.

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