Shake off the Winter Blues with an Eagle Watch on the Connecticut River

Article by contributor Bernadette Dostaler

On a perfect late winter day (for March in Connecticut) we bundled up in warm layers, grabbed a couple pairs of binoculars and a camera, and headed for the Connecticut River Museum in Essex, Connecticut. Our destination was Steamboat Dock, next to the museum, for a Winter Wildlife Eagle Cruise run by RiverQuest.

Eagle along the Connecticut River (RiverQuest Instagram Photo)

We met at the Connecticut River Museum for a quick overview about the main types of birds we would encounter, and how to differentiate an eagle from a turkey vulture and a hawk. Turkey vultures are not as strong as eagles; therefore they fly with their wings up in a ‘V’ shape and tip back and forth with the wind. Hawks have a similar silhouette as an eagle but are smaller.

Armed with this information all 45 or so of us boarded the sold out cruise. The RiverQuest boat has a heated central cabin with viewing windows and ample room at the bow and stern for outdoor viewing. Although we brought binoculars, pairs of binoculars are available on board free of charge. Complimentary tea and coffee are also offered throughout the cruise.

Pulling away from the dock and the Connecticut River Museum

As we pulled away from the dock the sky was a deep cerulean blue with puffy clouds. We faced into a strong, stiff breeze as we left behind the picturesque town of Essex and the Dauntless Shipyard and Marina. On board were Captain Mark and his wife Mindy, RiverQuest owners who first started offering cruises in 2002, and two additional staff members, Kathy and Caleb.

The crew, professional, knowledgeable, and friendly provided commentary at various times, spotted wildlife, and answered questions. Along with enjoying the commentary we were pleased that the boat boasts an excellent sound system allowing passengers to clearly hear staff, and a video screen in the main cabin that was used at times to show videos to answer passenger questions.

The narrative began by impressing on us the size of an eagle. A full-grown eagle’s wingspan would take up the entire width of the boat. Their nests are over 1,000 pounds and a full-grown person can lie down in one. Apparently, someone did just that when a nest was empty in the summer. 

As we cruised along the sparkling water we saw osprey nests, black-backed gulls, the largest gulls in the world, cormorants sitting on buoys, red tail hawks, and many other birds such as ducks and swans. We also saw eagle nests, in particular the nest of Bob and Helen, a young eagle couple that has taken up residence on the river.  As we sailed by we could see Helen sitting in their nest incubating their eggs.

A little while after reaching the halfway point of the cruise we spotted eagles circling high in the sky. As described, their wings are straight and strong as they glide along the thermal winds. With eyes fixed on the skies, we heard one of our guides, Caleb, mention that eagles are masters of the wind and do not bow to its strength, but rather harness it.

During the course of our trip, we saw juvenile eagles with all brown feathers. After about five years they develop the famous white feathers of the bald eagle. 

The Connecticut River is a tidal river with about 3 ½ to 4-foot tides. Our cruise was at low tide and because of that, we were in for a treat. Sitting on an exposed sandbar we saw a juvenile eagle, apparently guarding a tasty fish. Literally, out of the blue, an adult swooped down on the juvenile eagle and a swirling aerial battle ensued between the two. The adult made clear to the juvenile that this was his territory and it was time to fly away! We were all thrilled to have witnessed the encounter.

In addition, to spotting wildlife we sailed by Joshua’s Rock, an exposed rock face named, according to legend, for the Pequot Chief Uncas’ third son. The Connecticut River valley is an area of great natural beauty and the cruise passes Hamburg Cove, Brockway Island, and the spot where the Eight Mile River empties into the Connecticut River. As we continued to sail along we passed by a spattering of beautiful homes ranging from historic homes built in the 1700s to million dollar mansions. The towns along this stretch of the river all have interesting histories and deserve a visit—Ivoryton, Deep River, and Haddam, to name a few.

The Griswold Inn where you can enjoy lunch and warm up by the fire

After returning to Steamboat Dock, built in 1878 for the steamboats that used to run a circuit back and forth from Hartford to New York, we enjoyed a visit to the Connecticut River Museum, free of charge, included with our eagle cruise ticket purchase. The museum is a gem with exhibits ranging from the attack on Essex by the British during the War of 1812, a replica of the Turtle, the first submarine, shipping and industry in the area, a history of the river, and a wildlife photo exhibit.  

Of course, all this fresh air works up an appetite and there are plenty of excellent restaurants in Essex, including The Griswold Inn, one of the oldest continuously running inns in the United States, the Black Seal, Abby’s Place, and Olive Oyl’s. We choose the Griswold and were seated in one of the cozy rooms in front of a crackling fire. Our lunch of soup and sandwich was perfect for a cold day and provided the ideal end to a perfect day on the Connecticut River.

RiverQuest – Connecticut River Eco Tours
Owners: Mark and Mindy Yuknat
Phone: 860-662-0577

February–March – Winter Wildlife Tours leave from the CT River Museum in Essex, CT

From April-October a variety of cruises are offered ranging from Mother’s Day to full moon cruises to the famous Tree Swallow Sunset cruises. All tours from April-October leave from Eagle Landing State Park in Haddam, CT across from Goodspeed Opera House.

Private charters are also available.

*Article first appeared March 2019

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