Writing & Photography of Jim Murtagh

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The Writings & Photography of Jim Murtagh

Eagle Cruisin’ On the CT River

Broken apart by a Coast Guard vessel, the ice which once stretched across the Connecticut River, now collects in boulder size chunks along the banks. The vibrant whites of the frozen rubble are a stark contrast to the deep blue hue of the open water. The RiverQuest, a 55 foot twin-hull excursion vessel, is traveling northward, but will soon reverse its course at navigation marker number 29, because free floating ice obstructs the channel.

I stand alone on the front deck of the boat. My eyes tear from the cold winter breeze. Regardless of which bearing the craft takes, the wind seems to blow in my face. The tips of my fingers are numb, because the fingerless gloves which enable me to operate my camera, leave them unprotected. Stuffed in the palm of my gloves, a chemical hand warmer valiantly attempts to keep my extremities warm, but it is losing the battle. In another five minutes, I will retreat to the heated cabin and join the other 22 eagle seekers who watch from a more comfortable setting.

Unexpectedly, the captain’s voice blares through the speakers conveniently positioned all around the boat. “Eagle at 11:00 O’clock!” which translates to “everyone look out the left side window.” I start tracking the bird through my camera just as the adult eagle leaps from the tree where it had been perched, vigilantly scanning the river for an easy meal. The beautiful raptor heads north, passing directly over the boat, but then turns and flies into the light of the setting sun. Showered in golden rays, the bird’s white head glows.

Soaring about 150 feet overhead, the bird suddenly begins a rapid descent. As it nears the water’s surface, the predator thrusts forward its pair of yellow talons, and plucks a fish from the water. With a few flaps of its massive wings, the eagle is once again above the tree line. The fish, clearly visible, is trapped between the bird’s two inch claws. In a fleeting moment, the eagle disappears, probably taking refuge in a barren treetop to feast on its bounty. Exhilarated by the avian aerial display, I return to the cabin, but my fingers are no longer numb, and I failed to notice that several people had joined me on deck.

Docked at the Connecticut River Museum, the RiverQuest provides passengers with nature tours along the river. February and March are prime eagle watching months, as the birds are migrating south from Canada and Maine to enjoy the open water and abundant forage found in the lower CT valley. Cruise naturalist, Bill Yule, points out “This area has the largest concentration of eagles in the state, at 70% of the state’s total population.” Yule, an accomplished birder and educator for the Connecticut Audubon Society, is onboard to narrate the trip and identify the wide assortment of birds that are observed during the excursion.

The eagle cruise lasts about one hour and 45 minutes, and is a nature lover’s delight. The river is free from the chaotic boat traffic typically experienced during the warmer months, and yet the valley is just as beautiful and still teeming with life. First time eco-cruiser, Arlene Nylund from Avon exclaimed to her husband “It looks like we are in Alaska!”

Inside the warm cabin, at the opposite end from the coffee and tea, a box of camouflage colored binoculars sits on the floor ready for passengers to grab. A decal of an adult eagle is adhered to the underside of the roof to illustrate the eight foot wingspan of this gigantic bird. The wingtips stretch across the center aisle and over the chairs that line the massive viewing windows. The boat can seat 50 plus people, but the eco-cruises are generally limited to 35 guests, to ensure there is ample room for people to move around freely. Passengers are encouraged to walk onto the boat’s front or rear viewing platforms to immerse themselves in the experience.

On this opening weekend cruise of the 2007 season, the crew located five adult bald eagles and one immature eagle. It was an exceptionally rare occurrence to spot two rough-legged hawks, one dark morph and one white morph. These hawks only migrate from the Boreal Forest in Canada to CT every few years. Also seen were mergansers, black ducks, mallards, ruddy ducks, swans, red-tail hawks and a turkey vulture. Yule enthusiastically sums up the eco-cruise experience, “It’s one of those things where it’s so nice being on the river anyway, but then you see all this great wildlife. It makes it all that much better.”

For booking, or additional cruise information, contact Connecticut River Expeditions at 860-662-0577 or on the web at: www.ctriverexpeditions.org