It takes something special to bring groups of people out to a hydroelectric station in freezing temperatures, and on a cold December day, that particular thing was the majestic Shepaug Dam Bald Eagles.
With one day left in 2018, intoBirds ventured to the Shepaug Hydroelectric Facility in Southbury, CT braving the cold to see the wintering Bald Eagles.
It was a gray day filled with intermittent snow flurries, but we weren’t going to let a little snow and arctic temps stop us from seeing these magnificent birds.
The environment surrounding the Shepaug Hydroelectric Station (the largest hydroelectric station in Connecticut), provides a unique habitat for wildlife and is a vital winter feeding site for bald eagles. (December through March).
The Shepaug Dam, on the Housatonic River in Southbury, holds a unique appeal to the wintering birds.
The hydroelectric station’s operation prevents water from freezing, making it easy for the birds to feed on fish below the dam.
When the turbines are operating, the turbulent water causes fish to come to the surface, making it easier for the eagles to feed.
Greeted by Eagles
We arrived promptly at 9am per our reservation, and as soon as we were on the bald eagle observation grounds, we immediately saw two adult bald eagles flying high in the trees above.
We were anxious to park our car and get out and see the action.
Walking through the parking lot, two more adult bald eagles swooped low just over our heads.
The volunteers don’t let an eagle sighting happen without pointing it out to onlookers.
We were serenaded by, “look up, look up” as we walked to the viewing area.
Visitors gather in a large blind overlooking the river with spotting scopes set up to provide excellent viewing while a stove is burning in the corner of the blind to help onlookers keep warm.
The blind is against a chain link fence to establish boundaries where visitors can go and many people set their cameras and scopes here.
One person had a camera set up on a tripod with what looked like a computerized telescope for getting up close shots of the eagles.
All Eyes on the Eagles
Lucy Walker and her amazing staff of volunteers are helpful in assisting viewers, providing information and answering questions.
Many of the attendees didn’t bring binoculars or cameras with a zoom lens, but they’re just as much a part of the viewing.
No viewers are left behind, and the staff helps you find all the eagles spotted.
The blind is outfitted with a large-scale map of the viewing area so volunteers can point out where an eagle is to help you find it in your binoculars or viewing scope.
The largest concentration of wintering eagles in Connecticut can be seen perching, fishing or flying at this site on the Housatonic River.
The eagles tend to sit in the same spot for a reasonable period giving viewers the opportunity to see it before the bird takes flight.
You can expect to see as many as 10 or more bald eagles in a single day.
And enjoy seeing a variety of other birds including red-tail hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, goshawks, great blue herons, and other various waterfowl.
Seeing Bald Eagles
Adult Bald Eagles
Adult bald eagles are the easiest to spot with their dark brown bodies contrasting against its bright yellow bill, white head, and tail.
Their white heads stand out against the brown, tree-lined winter backdrop.
Listen for their high, weak-sounding whinny calls.
Juvenile Bald Eagles
Juvenile bald eagles have a brown body with brown and white mottled wings.
Their tails are also mottled with a dark band at the tip.
Juveniles are trickier to spot against the brownish backdrops, but their long, broad wings help them stand out.
Turbines Bring the Eagles
During our two-hour visit, we saw nine bald eagles at the observation site (five adults and four juveniles) and one adult bald eagle leaving the site on River Road.
And we were graced by the presence of a beautiful red-shouldered hawk feeding on its prey in the adjoining field.
Eagles are flying and landing over various spots near the dam.
With many stops on the island halfway between both sides for the birds to perch and hunt for fish.
There’s always something to look at in the viewing blind/
During quiet periods, the volunteers are happy to share stories about past sightings and history about the dam.
When 10am rolls around the hydroelectric station turns on its turbines.
And the real fun begins.
Once the turbines are operating, the turbulence in the water causes the fish to come to the surface, and the eagles swoop in for some sushi.
You enjoy the eagles aerial maneuvering to catch fish and delight in seeing them perched high above in the trees.
The Shepaug Dam is a fantastic place to observe wintering eagles in their natural state, and in their chosen territory.
We’re already looking forward to our return visit in February and hoping to see 20+ eagles.
Hot Spot for Eagles
Some of the eagles ta the Shepaug Dam live in Connecticut year long. But others come from Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritime Provinces.
Bald eagles visit Shepaug Dam in response to weather patterns and their consequences.
Severe cold up north freezes up bodies of water locking eagles out of fishing areas. Since fish is an eagle’s preferred food, they move south looking for food.
If Connecticut has a severe cold spell, causing ice lockup, the northern eagles continue south to Virginia or Maryland find open water.
Safeguarding Wintering Eagles
The Shepaug Dam is a critical winter feeding site for bald eagles.
Serving as a plentiful food source during winter, a stressful time for eagles when it’s essential for them to preserve their energy be preserved.
If eagles are frequently disturbed from feeding and forced to travel to a different area for food, a threatening situation for the eagles may result.
The observation area at Shepaug Dam is located at a safe distance from the eagle’s favorite perch sites eliminating potential for disturbances.
The eagle’s reaction to visitor presence is continually monitored to provide a safe haven for wintering eagles.
Connecticut’s Wintering Bald Eagle Population
Connecticut averages 80 bald eagles, but the numbers are increasing.
The state is limited in habitat for eagles.
But in 1992 a pair of eagles made Connecticut their home and raised a new generation of eagles.
Twenty-one years later, 25 nesting pairs raised 41 chicks.
In August 2007, bald eagles were removed from protection as a Federal Endangered Species. However, they are still protected under other Federal Acts.
Connecticut still protects them as threatened on the state level, due to lack of nesting habitat.
Planning a Trip to Shepaug Dam
You don’t just wake up and decide to visit the Shepaug Eagle Observation Area and expect to get entrance to view the eagles.
During the viewing season, admission is free, but reservations are required and are enforced at the gate.
Reservations can be made by calling 1-800-368-8954, Tuesday through Friday between the hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., now through early March.
Since opening in 1985, the Shepaug Eagle Observation Area has hosted nearly 140,000 visitors to observe the eagles and view exhibits.
In case of inclement weather, visitors are urged to call 1-860-895-6468 to verify whether or not the viewing area is open before arriving on the reserved viewing day.
If the eagle viewing facility is closed due to inclement weather, reservations can be rebooked to a later date.
Must-haves for Your Visit to Shepaug Dam
Seeing the eagles at Shepaug Dam is entirely an outdoor event.
Even though there’s a blind for viewing the eagles, it’s like being outside.
Dress for warmth.
Hats and gloves are a must, and hand warmers are recommended.
We use the Energy Flux Ellipse hand warmer, and when our fingers felt numb, this gadget helped us brave the cold and keep going.
Bring binoculars and viewing scopes.
Scopes are provided in the viewing blind, but seeing eagles is a collaborative effort and everyone’s input counts.
If you plan on taking photos, bring a camera with a zoom lens. If you rely on your iPhone or point and shoot camera, you’ll wish you brought something a bit more powerful.
Finally, bring a positive attitude and sense of humor and take delight in seeing these noble, majestic eagles.
No matter what the weather brings the day of your visit, reveal in seeing these amazing birds in their winter habitat.
Book Your Reservation
The upcoming dates include birds of prey shows featuring the CT Audubon Society and two of Connecticut’s exceptional raptor rehabilitation and education non-profits: Christine’s Critters and Horizon Wings.
We’re fond of all three organizations, and the birds of prey shows are highly recommended.
Now get out and see eagles!