By Mike Sembos
4:20 PM EST, February 12, 2013
Eagle Viewing Boat Cruise
The RiverQuest, board at Eagle Landing State Park, 14 Little Meadow Road, Haddam. Thu., Sat. & Sun., three times a day. Through March 17. $40. (860) 767-0660, ctaudubon.org.
As winter hits its harshest stride, there's something to be said for bundling up, boarding a boat and launching into the semi-frozen Connecticut River. You can hear the RiverQuests sturdy hull crunch the sheets of ice that partially coat the surface, and it produces a sense of satisfaction similar to that of twisting a sheet of bubble wrap. Having been prisoners of nature for a couple of months, a two-hour cruise during February or March is the perfect cure for both cabin fever and seasonal claustrophobia. It makes for a glorious pre-spring reclamation of the great outdoors. And you get to see some bald eagles too.
The Connecticut Audubon is once again hosting winter cruises down the river, launching from a spot across from the Goodspeed Operahouse (currently celebrating its 50th anniversary) in search of our national bird. In true patriotic fashion, the bald eagles annually lay their eggs on, or very close to, Presidents Day, so this time of the year is best for spotting them in and around their giant nests. There are 25 such bald eagle nesting territories in Connecticut, three within reach of the zone you'll be cruising through.
You'll also see other birds of prey, swans, maybe some seals and whatever other wildlife happens to be ambling by. We saw hundreds of common mergansers, a couple red tailed hawks and a bunch cormorants.
There's a heated cabin on the boat so you can catch all the action from a toasty, enclosed location, though the more hearty and/or adventurous souls may choose to claim a spot on the deck, with or without a tripod. They'll enjoy the best views, but the coldest toes.
Within five minutes of our embarkation we saw our first eagle, soaring through the air in our direction, looking just as majestic as you'd hope. The quintessential, postage-stamp-worthy bald eagle develops its full bright, whiteness as a 5th year adult. This guy looked rather mature, so he was at least five. The naturalists on board provide a handout that helps identify the age of younger bald eagles based on the color on their heads, bills, wings and tails.
During the times when there are no eagles present, you'll pass landmarks like Gillette Castle, Selden Island and the village of Ivorytown, which acquired its name because it was built upon the African elephant tusk trade, at one time handling 90 percent of all the ivory trade in the United States. Selden Island is a lesser known state campsite, decreed to have no bridges to maintain its untainted status, so if you want to camp there you're going to need to swim, paddle or row. This information is provided in the narration by the captain and the Connecticut Audubon naturalists on board via the boat's intercom. Some geological history about the landscape was also conveyed along with, "apologies to any creationists on board for our ignorance in determining the age of the rocks."
All told we saw 10 eagles on our journey, be it a baby perched on a high branch, the top of a head poking out of a nest or full-grown adults gliding around in the air currents. This is the kind of trip I would've done in a heartbeat had I been visiting a national park out West, but never would've thought about doing at home in Connecticut because I didn't know it was possible. It's easy to overlook the nature in your own backyard.
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