SOUTHBURY, Conn. -- The eagles were right on cue. Just as we reached the door to the observation blind above the Shepaug Dam, we heard a woman exclaim, ''Here they come! Here comes another one!"
We stamped the snow off our boots, pushed inside, and were greeted by an animated Jeff Seelig. ''You've arrived just in time," he said, pointing down the snowy field to a barren sycamore tree. ''He's right there, chirping away like mad." Sure enough, a faint kree! kree! carried in the sharp air.
Many of the northern bald eagles wintering over in New England have left Canada for our comparatively balmy clime. But as the region's lakes and rivers ice up, the disappearance of open water poses a problem for the birds, which subsist largely on a diet of freshly caught fish. The pools at the base of the 147-foot Shepaug Dam, however, never freeze, and the turbulence of the water pushes the fish to the surface where eagles can swoop down and snatch them. The area becomes a sashimi bar that's open all winter.
Seelig directed us to the pair of 40x spotting scopes set up on tripods so we could get a good look at the chirping eagle, which turned in profile so we could see its hooked beak. Eagles are about as active as the average house cat. According to logs kept at this observation blind, eagles at the dam spend 86.7 percent of their time perching, 9.2 percent flying, 2.1 percent feeding, and the remaining 2 percent interacting with each other by vocalizing or even fighting.
''They don't want to waste any energy," Seelig explained. ''It's not an easy hit for the fish."
Seelig was among a group of volunteer naturalists at the
They also trained their field glasses and telescopes on the waterfowl swimming in circles around the pools beneath the dam. Dabbling ducks (mostly mallards) seemed to glide along without feeding, but several common mergansers dove and came up with minnows. They were easy to identify, even at a distance. ''They're the ones that look like they're having a bad hair day," said naturalist Sandy Calkins, referring to the stray feathers streaming behind like a punk version of a ducktail haircut.
The blind is an unusually comfortable viewing station: a wooden shed about the size of a house trailer with windows along the side facing the Lower Housatonic River. The walls are covered with photographs of eagles and educational posters about eagle habits and habitat. With a warm sun shining in, we didn't need the gas-fired stove.
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See photos at explorenewengland.com.
The facility is open on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays from the week after Christmas until mid-March (March 15 this year). ''There's nothing else like it in the state," Seelig said. ''There are other places where you can see a few eagles, mostly on the Connecticut River, but you're going to be standing outside."
Up to 150 visitors come on the weekend days, while busloads of schoolchildren are scheduled on Wednesdays, when volunteers from the Connecticut Audubon Society bring ''teaching birds" that have been injured and cannot be released into the wild.
When we visited on a Wednesday, a snowstorm the night before had caused the school groups to cancel. We missed seeing the Audubon Society's owl, peregrine falcon, and red-tailed hawk, but without the youngsters, there was plenty of room for the rest of us to line the windows.
Becky Stromiger, another naturalist, laughed when she climbed up on a milk crate intended to boost children high enough to see through the scopes. She leaned into the eyepiece until an eagle came into sharp focus. ''There you are," she said. ''You're looking right at me. Gorgeous!"
Seelig raised his high-power field glasses. ''That's one of ours," he announced. ''It has a silver band." Each state, he explained, bands chicks with a different color.
More naturalists than visitors were on hand, but they kept busy discussing each eagle that came to lunch and taking note of its probable age and behavior. In the course of two hours, the dam pool was host to three adults and one bird within a few months of maturity. It had the characteristic white head of a mature eagle (''bald" once meant white, not hairless) but the brown spots and streaks in the tail gave it away as a juvenile. Calkins zeroed in on it and turned up the magnification to confirm the streaky tail. ''Dirty bird," she said, and it was noted in the log as an immature.
It was early January and the weather had been relatively mild, so there weren't many eagles in residence yet. The naturalists conduct a count each day of the highest number of eagles visible at any one time. That way, no bird gets counted twice. But the counting will probably pick up.
''Come back after a real cold snap," Calkins said. ''Last year, there were about 11 every day."
Contact Patricia Harris and David Lyon, writers based in Cambridge, at firstname.lastname@example.org.