January 21, 2022

Eagles put on a Show at the River Museum’s “Eagle Watch Boat Tour” on the Connecticut River

Boat tour vessel, the 65 foot "Project Oceanology"

The eagles must have known we were coming! Soaring in the sky high above the decks of Project Oceanology’s 65 foot research vessel, was a solitary bald eagle, circling slowly, already in view. So began, on a recent Friday afternoon, another Connecticut River Museum “Eagle Watch Boat Tour,” pulling away from the museum’s Essex docks on the Connecticut River.

Soon after departure the passengers on board began to spot even more eagles. Some were in pairs and others were single eagles drifting lazily in the sky above. Later in the tour, there would be a final triumphal sighting on Nott Island of a female bald eagle, peeking out of her nest, patiently waiting for her eggs to hatch into baby eaglets.

This afternoon was made for eagle watching, with an unclouded sky, and unseasonably warm temperatures. However, once the vessel got underway, and out into the middle of the river, it was pretty chilly, notwithstanding the warmth on the land.

Passage ways are safe for passengers

39 paying passengers were on board for the tour, designed to spend an hour and a half in search of bald eagles. Even at a ticket cost of forty dollars per person, all those on board truly got their monies worth.

At the microphone the museum’s Naturalist and Educator Bill Yule was at first apologetic that there might be too few eagles to see during the tour. It had been such a warm winter, so perhaps the eagles might not have needed to fly south to find ice free, fishing waters. However, he had no need to apologize. There were plenty of bald eagles to be seen in the sky on this bright, bright day.

Bill Yule, master spotter of the eagles               

Bill Yule is the “Eagle Watch Boat Tour,” Master of Ceremonies. At times he is assisted by Project Oceanology’s Chris Dodge and Allyce Irwin, but Yule handles most of the speaking chores himself.

Boat Tour Moderator Bill Yule at the mike

Early on in the trip, Yule set out an eagle spotting system to help the passengers on board find the eagles in the sky. If an eagle were spotted dead ahead, off the bow of the boat, Yule would call this location “twelve o’clock.” If an eagle was spotted dead astern, it would be “six o’clock.”

Similarly, if an eagle was spotted mid ships at the right side of the vessel, it would be “three o’clock,” and mid ships on the left side of the ship, it would be “nine o’clock.” It was a simple system, but throughout the voyage, it helped guide the on-board eagle watchers to find their visual prey.

Although a few of the passengers needed only the naked eye to enjoy the sight of the eagles, most of the passengers made use of long range cameras, or powerful binoculars, to see the birds. Binoculars, incidentally, were provided at no extra charge to passengers.

DDT and the survival of the eagles

At about midpoint of the boat tour, Yule became very serious. He said that not too many years ago, “the eagles were almost gone from the river.” The reason was that that back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, DDT was widely used as a pesticide, and this pesticide in turn made its way into the waters of the Connecticut River.

The DDT was then ingested by the fish in the river, the very fish that was the staple of the eagle’s diet. DDT’s effect on the eagles turned out to be severe. It made the shells of the eggs of the female eagles too brittle to sheath properly embryonic baby eaglets. Unable to reproduce live birds, the eagle population declined rapidly, even to the point where eagles were put on the nation’s endangered species list.

However, in 1972 DDT was banned, and as a result no longer was DDT in the diet of the fish that the eagles consumed in the river. Able to reproduce again, the eagle population increased along the river; the shells of the mothers now strong enough to hold baby eaglets until their normal birth.

Ultimately, it reached the point where Bill Yule could say the other day, “The eagles have now come back to the river in abundance.”

“It is truly an environmental success story,” he said with a tone of triumph in his voice.

Also a bit of sightseeing on the boat tour

Yule occasionally diverted his attention from eagle spotting to becoming a Connecticut River tour guide.  “We are now passing Selden Island,” he said at one point. “It is the largest island in the State of Connecticut. There are four campsites on the island, and there is an old forge there as well.” He also told the stories of Joshua Rock, the Mount St. John School for Boys and the Gillette Castle.

While the eagle spotting by the passengers was still in full force, Yule mentioned a few eagle statistics. For one, they can fly as high as 12,000 feet in the sky. To reach these heights they take advantage of rising, warm air currents from the land. Also, according to Yule, eagles can fly at up to 50 miles an hour.

Continuing, Yule said that it is only after it reaches the age of four that an eagle’s tail turns white. Also, eagles are not particularly friendly to other birds, and they have been known to take fish out of the mouths of sea gulls.

In addition, eagles mate for life, although if one of the pair dies they quickly find a replacement. Also, a mother eagle sits on her eggs for 35 days before the eggs hatch, and while she is nesting, her mate brings fish for her to eat.

After they are born, the eagle mother will feed her young for several months, and ten weeks after birth the young eagles will learn to fly.  However, eagles are not genetically born to know how to fish, Yule said. It is a skill that they must learn on their own during their first year of life.

Since many young eagles cannot learn to fend for themselves, as many as 50 percent die in their first year of their lives, according to Yule.

The egg-laying season for eagles in the Essex area, this year is from February 2 to 23, Yule said. By June all of the eagles will be gone from our part of the river, having left for cooler waters up north.

                    Eagle watchers were well pleased with the tour

Among the passengers on this “Eagle Watch Boat Tour,” not a single one said they were disappointed with the tour.

Lee Bradley of Newington said, “I thoroughly enjoyed it,” and “the narration was very, very good.” For her part Sandy Clark of Manchester found the trip, “very interesting,” and “it was very good at showing us everything.” Lorraine Trinks of East Hartford simply called the boat tour, “fabulous.”

Close up of a Bald Eagle watcher

The Eagle Watch Boat Tours, sail only on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, and they began the 2012 season on February 3. The Friday boat tours will continue sailing until March 9, and the Saturday and Sunday boat tours, will continue sailing until March 10 and 11, respectively.

As for departure times, the Friday boat tours cast off from the museum’s docks at 1:00 p.m., and the Saturday and Sunday boat tours depart on both days at 9:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m.

We shall give Bill Yule the final word on the Eagle Watch Boat Tour. As he puts it, “It is better than any other method to get up close and personal with our national symbol, the Bald Eagle.”

Bill Yule enjoying the ride home