New England Coastal BIrds

New England Coastal BIrds

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Part 8- "Eagles on the Lower Ct. River"

   Part 8, Day 15- Saturday, February 16, East Haddam, CT-  Even after the long cold snap the CT River was still ice-free. A little warming trend started this morning bringing temps above freezing. Being mid February with an unfrozen CT River, the conditions were perfect for a river ride Eagle watch.

     Jen and I drove down to Essex to the CT River Museum anxious to board the Eagle boat. But when we drove into the small parking lot, we found no one there. The Eagle boat was moored at the dock, but it was obvious they weren't running the trip. The Museum was closed, the walkway to the dock wasn't cleared, and the dock was covered with snow. That was very disappointing, we were looking forward to spending the morning on the lower CT River watching Eagles. Actually I should have known this because early that morning I was looking at their website and there weren't any updates posted and all my calls to secure reservations went unanswered.

    So here Jen and I stand looking at an empty  moored boat slowly rocking in the open water of the CT River, what to do? It was nearly 10:30 and I suggested we give a call to River Quest the other Eagle Watch boat tour in East Haddam.

    This Eagle watch boat is moored across the river from the Goodspeed Opera House which is about twenty minutes north of Essex.  I was also looking at their website earlier this morning which listed updates and posted that this trip was scheduled for 11:00 am this morning pending any weather/ice conditions. As I was driving out of the empty parking lot, Jen gave them a call and spoke to a very pleasant lady who said they were running, nearly full, but would be glad to wait for us!

     We arrived at the boat dock at Eagle Landing Park, and the parking lot was packed. Everyone was on board, and the diesels were all warmed up. Jen and I are always early for these trips and we were walking down the dock in unfamiliar territory: late! Although we were on time and still had a few more minutes until the scheduled departure, I couldn't help feeling late. But Mindy, one of the hosts and guides on the trip explained to everyone the situation which lessened our embarrassment quite a bit!

     Jen and I boarded the vessel, and were greeted with a big hello and smile by Mindy. As soon as we took our spots on the nearly empty bow (everyone was inside the heated cabin) the lines were cast off, and the River Quest steamed down river-

     On shore a large group of "Eagle Watchers" lead by Janet and Jerry Connolly of the Audubon Shop in Madison -

     Looking down river to Chester-

      This area of the CT River has always been a favorite of mine. Not only is East Haddam a classic winter calender village, but one of the best locations in the state to watch Common Mergansers. However this morning the first mergansers to fly by were Red-breasted Mergansers. This species is uncommon this far up the river. They are more visible and numerous at the mouth of the river in Old Saybrook. Here three drakes pass by the bow-

      Here are the Common Mergansers. This small flock of mostly drakes swim along the shore by the East Haddam airport-

       This "reared-up" drake displays the classic winter salmon-pink color "staining" or "flush" on its plumage. Caused by a carotenoid compound within the feathers and in the oily substance in their preen glands. The carotenoid pigments are generated from the birds diet of many species of fresh water fish (such as trout).  I have spent many hours watching Common Mergansers especially their preening activities. The ducks maintain their feathers uniformly, but seem to spend additional time on their chest, breast feathers and all ventral feathers. These feathers need to be in the best condition and completely oiled for long durations being in contact with water.

     If you look closely at Common Mergansers, the feather areas which are "flushed" the most are the chest, breast, side pockets, lower tail coverts and flanks. These are all the areas that will be wet for extended periods of time. These are the areas of the bird where the most grooming and conditioning takes place. Since the white plumage of the drake is more extensive, the flush is more obvious. The grey plumage of the hen will show lesser flushing, but it is evident on the white feathering on her chest, breast, and  lower tail coverts. The areas of the Mergansers white plumage that shows the least amount of flush are the wing coverts and upper chest/neck area which have less contact and submersion in water. I have seen a few Red-breasted Mergansers with similar flushing on their white dorsal feathering-

     As the vessel gets closer, the Mergansers take off. Their bright red/orange legs and feet strongly contrast against their (white) plumage-

        A perfectly choreographed group of drakes-

     As we slowly steamed down river, Common Mergansers were flying in all directions-

     The second most common species of winter waterfowl on the river mingle with the Mergansers: Common Goldeneye-

     Mindy checks out a distant Eagle flying over the hill-

    One of the two known Eagle nests on the CT River-

      More Goldeneye-

     One of the Red-tailed Hawks seen on the trip-

      Waterfowl such as this small flock of Common Goldeneye were seen in good numbers continually during the entire trip-

     And of course endless Common Mergansers-

      As we approached the narrows just south of Chapman's Island......

     .....a single hen Common Merganser flew by the port side of the vessel appearing to be in a big hurry. Its reason soon became evident........ an adult Bald Eagle was right on its tail! Everyone was watching the Merganser and no one saw the pursuing Eagle! I just happened to look back and there it was!-

     The Eagle passed closely by the boat.....

     .....and headed directly towards the fleeing Merganser.-

       Amazingly, it narrowed the distance between itself and the fast flying merganser......

     .....until it was only a few yards away......

      .....the Eagle was nearly on top of the Merganser......

     .....when the more agile Merganser attempted to make an evasive maneuver to hopefully confuse the Eagle!-

     All of the sudden, the Eagle reached out its long legs and made a grab for the Merganser! In a last second effort to avoid the Eagles huge talons, the Merganser rolled over just as the Eagle made contact with the Mergansers tail.....

     .....and it slipped away! The Eagle stalled for a moment to regroup.....

    ......and regained its bearings on the Merganser......

     ......that was now heading off in a different direction-

     The Eagle however, recovered and rolled completely over which aided in drastically changing its flight direction making its large bulk appear like an agile Falcon!-

     The Eagle pitched downward and picked up the chase again.....

     .....only a second away from striking the Merganser......

      ......this time the Merganser hit the water in an evasive airborne dive......

     ......which may have saved its life! The Eagle circled the area as it watched the Merganser swimming underwater.

      The Eagle may be the royalty in the air, but Mergansers are the royalty underwater! The Merganser made many evasive directional changes underwater which took the Eagle off its game. It surfaced behind the Eagle as it turned away in its aerial search-

     The Eagle spotted the cunning Merganser, but before it could approach to closely, the Merganser dove again..... the out-foxed Eagle circles again searching for the Merganser!-

     This "cat and mouse" game (or should I say) "Eagle and Merganser" game continued for a few more minutes.....

     .....until the Eagle gave up and flew off!-

     A short distance down river nearing the pilings by the ferry landing, the first Great Cormorants of the day. I like Great Cormorants and really enjoy seeing them on the river in the winter. But I couldn't help wonder why the Eagle decided to chase a Common Merganser which is more agile and difficult to catch, when these Cormorants were perched nearby?-

     More Cormorants fly overhead heading up river-

     Good views of Gillette Castle  -

      More Common Mergansers and part of a small raft of Ring-necked Ducks-

     Ring-necked Ducks-

     The first perched Eagle of the day ( sub-adult), just south of the ferry slip-

    This Eagle must have enjoyed the attention, it turned back and flew right over us!-

     More Great Cormorants along the Deep River shore-

     And of course, more Common Mergansers.....

     .....more Great Cormorants.....


     ....and a great shot of a Great Cormorant on a large chunk of floating ice-

     Mergansers were all along the shoreline-

     This small group of Mallards and Black Ducks had two drake Green-winged Teal (one drake right)-

     More Cormorants standing on ice flows-

      That's correct....more Common Mergansers.-

     I spotted a single Eagle standing on a distant sandbar-

     Just down river, this young Eagle was perched on a snag. Beautiful bird!-

     It takes off and flies right alongside the boat-

     Another Eagle standing on another sand bar-

     The farther down river we went, the number of Great Cormorants increased-

     We had now made it down river to Essex. The white building is CT River Museum, and the blue boat is the Eagle tour boat that was moored at the dock. The River Quest had reached the southernmost point of the tour which took a little over an hour and a half. We now turned around and headed back up river.

     Stunning drake Common Merganser-

     The second Eagle nest on the CT River-

     Another adult Eagle perches along the River, this one on the Essex shoreline-

     This adult also gave us quite a show....

     .....and flew right over us-

     A closer look at the nest as we rounded a bend in the river.....

     ......revealed someone was home! The female had begun laying eggs.-

     This juvenile bird was taking a chance by flying near and over the nest!-

     A cropped image showing the female in the nest-

     Joshua Rock     


     Jen spotted a distant Raven over Hamburg Cove. This was the first of two-

     Heading back upriver, we had a better look at one of the juvenile Eagles on the sandbar-

     More Cormorants.....

     .....and more Eagles-

      Beautiful juvenile Eagle-

      While we were watching the perched Eagle, this Great Cormorant popped up from a dive...maybe a careless decision in a dangerous area? I have seen Mergansers and Cormorants swimming below perched Eagles many times on the River. I believe the birds instinctively know when the Eagles are hungry. However, just to be sure, better keep alert...just in case!-

      Drake Green-winged Teal (right)-

     On the way back up river, a gust of wind came up and blew my favorite birding hat off my head. It of course went overboard and I feared it was lost. Since I didn't see it floating in the river, on a hunch I looked over the stern and there it was hanging on to the motor control box. Mindy rescued it for me. Thank You Mindy!-

     On the southern tip of Chapman's Island, another perched juvenile.....

     .....followed by another one-

     One of the last Great Cormorants of the day fly by the River Quest-

     Looking north to the East Haddam bridge. A few Crows standing on the sandbar of Chapman's Island-

     Osprey nest-

     The last flock of ducks by the dock, Ring-necked Ducks-

     The last Eagle of the day, and adult preens in a large tree by the airport-

      East Haddam- Goodspeed Opera House and the swing bridge-

     Back at the dock, waiting for the next group.-

      It was a great morning on the River Quest; we all had a lot of fun! Mindy and the other crew made the three hour trip very exciting, and we saw plenty of Eagles and birds.Totals for the day are below-

     This pair of Red-shouldered Hawks were perched near the parking lot, a great way to cap off the morning!-

     Highlights from the day: Highlights: 13 Bald Eagles, 5 Red-tailed Hawks, 3 Red-shouldered
Hawks, 1 Coopers and 1 Sharp-shinned and 2 Ravens 

Waterfowl were plenty: 200-250 Common Mergansers, 200 Common Goldeneye, 3 drake Red-breasted 
and 1 hen Hooded Mergansers, 75 Ring-necked Ducks,  good numbers Mallards and Black Ducks, 
2 Am. Wigeon and 2 drake Green-winged Teal. 24-30 Great Cormorant.

  Some Inspired Art-  The rest of the day I kept thinking about the morning. I especially enjoyed the Great 
Cormorants. Jen and I talked about them and we reminisced about our summer trip to Seal Island in Maine 
with John Drury. John studies the Great Cormorants on the outer islands around Vinalhaven, and he also is 
dismayed abut the Eagles decimating that breeding colony this past summer. He wrote me and told me
 that only two Great Cormorants were left at the end of the summer.

    I carved this Great Cormorant decoy a week after today's trip. It is carved in the classic CT River style
 from Essex. added a bit of simulated age to it to give it that old look. It is now in the collection of 
James Hunt.

     A few years ago Jen and I were standing on the dock behind the Goodspeed Opera House one winter watching the Common Mergansers in the river. Jen looked up just as a pair of Bald Eagles flew out from the large tree across the river and suddenly engaged in a brief somersaulting locked talon courtship display. It was the first and only time that I have ever seen this, and something we will always remember.

     So I was greatly inspired to paint the pair of Eagles at that location. I decided on a large oil painting and started sketching the scene on my 25 x 36 inch hardboard panel. But first I needed to sketch the small village set in this winter scene. I went back and photographed the bridge, Opera House, Gelston House, and remaining shops and houses. The sketch would be used to make tracings and stencils so I could transfer the village to my panel. When the sketch and tracings were completed, Jen decided to take my original drawings and have them framed. It now sits on our dining room wall.-

     Here is the layout for "Christmas Village" complete with transferred sketch ready to be painted.....
(some day)!!-

     A few of my carvings and decoys reflecting on our day on the CT River Eagle watch. This was carved a few years ago, and was inspired by observing these birds from the dock of the Goodspeed Opera House. The piece is entitled "Goodspeed Cafe". A complete narrative below from my book "The Art in Making Decoys"-

      From "The Art in Making Decoys"- On the banks of the lower Ct. River lies the small charming New England town of East Haddam.  Several  classic Victorian buildings decorate the banks of the river allowing your mind a glimpse into the past when horse drawn buggies traveled over the swing bridge built just after the year 1910.  The winterscape is stunning with the town’s classic lamps and traditional holiday cheer framed by the snow covered hills that offer you a warm and inviting welcome like a mug of steaming hot chocolate in front of a crackling fire on a very cold night.  Near the town’s main dock, the tall oak trees that line the river now bare from the winters nap are hosting a pair of large dark shapes huddling from the falling snow.  These dark shapes topped with a snow white head pierce the mood with a razor sharp stare worthy of great respect from foul and fur.  This pair of Bald Eagles  settled in for the night, have chosen this oak for their private evening lair.  The lower Ct. river holds large wintering populations of Bald Eagles, paying close watch for their main winter prey; the abundant fish, Cormorants and the large wintering flocks of Common Mergansers. The mergansers are always vigilant, and many times I have watched a flock of mergansers swimming underneath the tree where the eagles were perched, cautiously keeping their eyes on the eagles.  Aside from the eagles, the Mergansers have another predator on the river that require their vigilance.
     Great and Double-crested  Cormorants with their superior diving skills are a formidable diving predator of fish.  Near the town docks of East Haddam, flocks of Common Merganser spend the winter months fishing for the abundant white perch, catfish, bass, herring, and eels until the river freezes and forces them to find open areas of the lower river, and often to salt water.  Associating with the Mergansers are Double- crested and Great Cormorants that are accepted or possibly tolerated by the Mergansers.  Cormorants like the Mergansers are expert fisherman, but the cormorant’s skills are unmatched in the murky slow moving waters of the Ct. river.  Only a short drive from my home, I spend many winter hours watching the mergansers and I am especially fascinated by the antics of their feeding activities.  The Cormorants are just about always the first birds to locate fish, and their return to the surface with wiggling fish usually sets off a feeding frenzy with the Mergansers.  The Mergansers often try and steal the prey from the Cormorants.  Since the Cormorants are stronger and more skilled the Common Mergansers attempts are often unsuccessful.  In fact,  Cormorants are more successful thieving the fish from the Mergansers and do that quite often.

      I have seen Common (and Red-breasted) Mergansers attempting and often successfully steal fish from one another either drake of hen. One cold morning in late January  after a fresh snow, the river was just starting to show signs of freezing but the northwest wind was keeping the water open for at least one more day.  A flock of fifty Mergansers with a dozen Cormorants had settled in along the town dock and were diving in feeding activity.  Every now and then a Common Merganser would return to the surface with a small herring or catfish only to be greeted by probing bills attempting to steal their hard won meal. My attention was directed to a sudden commotion in the middle of the flock with a large splash that made the stage as a pair of drake Common Mergansers were heavily involved in a thrashing dance.  The wrestling drakes twisted and pulled with everything they had soon revealing their reasons for the squabble.  The two drakes were fighting and tugging over the rights to a foot long eel.  As I watched the struggling drakes, out of nowhere a Cormorant appeared from under and between the two drakes,  grabbed the eel,  and with expert execution had relieved the two mergansers of their prize. The Cormorant departed in a typical “head only” profile, and vanished under the water.  The Cormorant came back to the surface thirty yards away from the main flock and briefly struggled with the eel, but remarkably managed to swallow it easily, coils and all.

      I recreated that event but carved a hen and drake Common Merganser instead of two drakes.  The Double-crested Cormorant has surfaced between the struggling merganser pair and has a good hold on the eel.  All three birds are attached to the same keel which I carved out of three exotic wood species: mahogany, cordia and Gabon ebony.  To facilitate strengthening techniques for the vulnerable bills and the eel, the bills are inserted bulletwood with internal brass rods epoxied in place.  The eel was carved from eight pieces of lineal grained sura and holly with three internal brass rods then soaked in epoxy for steel like strength.  In the spirit of the Ct. River and the quaint town of East Haddam, I entitled the decoy sculpture “Goodspeed Café” named after the Goodspeed Opera House which sits above the dock on the banks of the river.  Goodspeed Café is now proudly displayed in the collection of Bill Orgain. 

     Completed carving ready for the keel and paint-

     The carved keel-

      Double-crested Cormorant carved in the influence of Elmer Crowell-

      Pair contemporary Common Mergansers-

      Drake Common Merganser carved in the "Stratford School" style influenced by Shang Wheeler-

     Contemporary Double-crested Cormorant-

       Courtship display drake Common Goldeneye carved in the Gloucester, Mass. style-

     Contemporary drake Red-breasted Merganser-

      Drake Green-winged Teal mantle carving made in the influence of Elmer Crowell-

     Drake Common Goldeneye carved in the influence and style of Elmer Crowell-

     Preening drake Goldeneye carved in the style and influence of Shang Wheeler-

     Realistic style decoy pair- Red-breasted Mergansers-

                  Day 15 Continues- Circle Beach, Madison- "First -1st to the Beach" -

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