Safe in the sturdy branches of an oak tree, the first bald eagle nest in the recorded history of the Quinnipiac River hangs 75 feet above ground, overlooking a stretch of marshland by the riverbank. On this brisk October day, the sun is shining and ducks are gliding across the surface of the water, unaware that hunting season in North Haven is imminent. In the cool shade of the nest, a few shotgun shells litter the ground from past hunters, but now the area is quiet and serene: this spot of the river is protected from intruders. It’s the sole territory of the bald eagles who inhabit the nest overhead.
Mike Horn, my guide on this trip to the eagles’ hidden dwelling and a member of the Quinnipiac River Watershed Association, points his binoculars at the nest admiringly. Although it doesn’t look particularly large from the ground, Horn assures me that the oval-shaped nest is deep and measures at least seven-by-five feet. Some of its sticks weigh ten pounds each.
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“When you look at that, you’ve got to remember — birds built that,” he says, a trace of awe in his voice.
This nest is new — the two bald eagles that have become its permanent residents built it just last winter. Unless disturbances cause the birds to abandon the nest, they will continue to live here year after year, adding to its branches each season. Some old nests have weighed over 1,000 pounds, causing trees to collapse from the strain.
While the nest is impressive in its own right, the environmental transformation it signals for the New Haven area is even more significant. In addition to indicating a comeback in the local bald eagle population, the nest implies an improvement in the water quality of the Quinnipiac River.
The exact location of the nesting site is intentionally kept secret. Bald eagles who feel their space invaded or threatened by humans may stop feeding their offspring and completely abandon their nests. “This area is closed; no trespassing,” declare red signs nearby. In the summer, during the height of the eagles’ nesting season, not even Horn visits the site. If he showed up, he might disturb them as they’re incubating their eggs or feeding their newly hatched offspring.
Now, on his first trek to the site since spring, Horn lowers his binoculars and inspects the surrounding marshes. In addition to being a member of the QRWA, Horn is an avid birdwatcher and environmentalist. A participant in river cleanups, Horn helps coordinate the building of artificial osprey nests to encourage the return of birds of prey to the Quinnipiac River. Mary Mushinsky, the executive director of the QRWA, swears that Horn “thinks like an osprey.” She adds that Horn has come to understand all birds of prey so well that he’s been named “the godfather of the eagles.”
This may be why Horn was given the privilege of naming the eagles when they were discovered nesting in the spring. When the birds first migrated to the area for the winter, there was no indication that they would stay. The male had been seen in the area since 2004 and was unusually bold for a bald eagle. Although most prefer to avoid urban areas, this male perched on a branch by the railroad tracks over State Street, seemingly oblivious to the bustle below.
“In the mornings I’d find him totally ignoring the people,” Horn says.
Last winter, the 10-pound male was seen with a new companion: a female who weighed six pounds more than he did, a typical discrepancy for birds of prey. In the annual environmental survey, the couple was included in the count of birds wintering in the local area.
When spring of 2007 rolled around, however, the birds shocked the community by deciding not to migrate. Instead of leaving, they built a nest, outlasted a snowstorm, and started a family. When Horn first heard the rumor, he didn’t believe it. Then he went to the site himself and saw the two eagles building their nest.
The nest was soon named the Quinnipiac River Eagle Nest One, or QE1. Horn, who boasts of his ability to recite all the monarchs of Great Britain since Henry VII, named the female eagle Queen Elizabeth I. He named her mate the Earl of Essex, nicknamed Essex, after the Elizabeth’s one-time favorite who later turned against her and was executed for treason.
“The good news is, [the female] did not have him beheaded at the end of the nesting season,” Horn jokes.
Quite the opposite. Unlike the original Elizabeth and Essex, the two bald eagles mated, resulting in the hatching of a sibling pair that Horn, continuing in the British vein, named William and Mary. When the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection tagged the hatchlings, it found that they weigh in at 4 pounds and 6 pounds, both healthy weights for fledgling eagles. Now they’re big enough to hunt for food with their parents.
On this day, unfortunately, the family of eagles is nowhere to be seen, and the only visible woodland creatures are ducks. Nesting season, which lasts from mid-March to September, has reached its end for the eagles; migration season is approaching. Horn tells me that he’s seen the birds fishing at the harbor, but he is unsure whether they are preparing for a migration or for a winter here on the Quinnipiac. “Bald eagles are a tough thing to figure out,” he says.
The presence of Elizabeth and Essex is part of a larger resurgence in Connecticut’s bald eagle population. Milan Bull, the Senior Director of Science and Conservation for the Connecticut Audubon Society, was pleasantly surprised by the eagles’ nest.
“Our eagle population is coming back like we never expected,” he says.
The bald eagle has often faced an uphill battle for recognition. When it was proposed as the national bird, Benjamin Franklin objected on the grounds that bald eagles steal fish from ospreys and other raptors — he proposed the turkey instead. Horn has noted a continued public distaste for eagles because of their strong predatory habits. Still, when their numbers plummeted across the country and bald eagles had to fight for survival, it was public support for the national bird that helped spark the recovery effort.
The plight of the bald eagle has been national in scope. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the United States of 1776 might have held as many as 100,000 nesting bald eagles, but by 1940 Congress was forced to pass the Bald Eagle Protection Act to prohibit the hunting of the species. When DDT hit the American market after World War II, the population of bald eagles plunged until there were only 417 mating pairs across the nation in 1963. None of these pairs were in Connecticut, where the bird had not been seen since the 1950s. The bald eagle hit the federal endangered species list in 1967 under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966, and in 1978 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed it as endangered in most states, including Connecticut.
Both Bull and Mushinsky tie the use of pesticides to the declining numbers of bald eagles in Connecticut early in the 20th century, although other reasons for their endangered status throughout the nation include hunting and loss of habitat. DDT, a common pesticide in 1960s Connecticut, leaked into streams and other water supplies and concentrated in fish, the primary diet of bald eagles and other raptors. The toxin suppressed calcium production in the birds, causing the shells of their eggs to thin. The fragile eggs would crack when laid or incubated by their parents. The effects were widespread. “Most of our raptor populations were depressed,” Bull says.
In 1972 the EPA banned most applications of DDT. Mushinsky remembers the fight for the ban as a tough battle, but one with plenty of public support.
“The public rallied to the river and the birds,” she said. “It took public pressure to get rid of DDT. The pesticide had a lot of fans and it was a big fight to get rid of it. … [DDT] was just not worth it. It was too destructive.”
The recovery of the bald eagle population was gradual. Bull says that only small numbers of bald eagles have been seen wintering in Connecticut, and they have concentrated around fishing sites. Midwinter bald eagle survey results for Connecticut show that in 1979 only 20 birds were found wintering in the state, and the numbers did not increase above 50 until 1988.
In 1992, however, Connecticut witnessed one of its first significant successes with the bald eagles through the efforts of the Metropolitan District Commission, a government agency. With the help of a volunteer organization, the Bald Eagle Study Group, the MDC set up a nesting platform for bald eagles in 1990 in Barkhamsted, in the rural northwestern part of the state. In 1992, bald eagles nested on the platform and hatched two eaglets. Within ten years, eight more pairs of eagles were nesting in Connecticut.
The process of re-populating the state has seen both successes and setbacks. In 2002, two eagles nested on the Connecticut River, and the exact site of their dwelling was published. The resulting tourism disturbed the eagles so much that they abandoned their nest. Luckily, efforts sparked by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Northern States Bald Eagle Recovery Plan helped the state reach its goal of 10 nests and 20 bald eagles in 2005.
The nesting of the bald eagles in North Haven has been an indication of the general upswing of birds on the Quinnipiac. Mushinsky believes that the bald eagles’ appearance on the river is related to the increasing population of ospreys. As the QWRA has been erecting osprey platforms to encourage ospreys to nest along the river, the birds have taken to them immediately. These platforms offer places to nest and come complete with raccoon guards. So far, they’ve allowed the ospreys to produce 41 fledglings along the river this year.
“I think [the bald eagles] looked around and saw all the osprey nests and concluded that there were a lot of fish here,” Mushinsky says, “They were able to find a spot that was OK for them and they did just fine.”
The return of the eagles to Connecticut is more than just a success story for the birds. It also indicates a significant improvement in the quality of the Quinnipiac River.
Members of the QRWA agree that in the early 1970s the river was not much more than a sewer. In addition to the problems caused by DDT, pollution from surrounding industrial communities degraded the health of the river. Landfills, sewer treatment plants and manufacturing industries all contributed to the problem by allowing their waste and by-products to enter the water system. Runoff from towns along the river filled it with contaminants such as petroleum and dog waste.
“The river had been written off as a waste-relieving stream,” Mushinsky says. “That was the dark time of heavy pollution.”
In 1970, Walter Hylwa, a local resident from Meriden, became fed up. Together with members of planning committees of the towns along the Quinnipiac River, he founded the Quinnipiac Study Committee to raise awareness about the problem.
“I am an outdoorsman and I like to fish, and it’s a beautiful river up to Meriden,” Hylwa says. “People didn’t pay too much attention to it. I decided that we could put a group together and make people aware of the river.”
In 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, which demanded higher standards for waste treatment and management and forced the surrounding sewer industry, chemical industry, and foundries to change their discharge practices.
In 1975 the Quinnipiac Study Committee became the QRWA, a nonprofit organization with an office in Meriden. Hylwa became its president. Now 200 members strong, they organize cleanups of the river. Their members include anglers, paddlers, bird watchers, and various property owners in the area concerned about the river and its potential to support wildlife and be a recreational resource for the community.
One problem the QRWA noticed first was the river’s scarcity of fish. “[The river] was devoid of any real native fish. There were probably suckers and eels and carp,” Hylwa says. Raptors such as bald eagles eat many types of fish, including bass, trout, perch, catfish, and herring. Without a steady supply of their daily food, the local bird populations suffered.
In response, the QRWA launched activities to monitor the river, hoping to improve its quality and to resuscitate its local fish populations. In conjunction with students from Yale, members of the organization tested the water and were able to present data to the Department of Environmental Protection suggesting the need for aggressive cleanup efforts. The QRWA Stream Team takes river samplings and studies local vegetation in order to analyze the impact of the community on the environment.
The survival of fish introduced to the river indicates the success of these efforts. The QRWA stocks the river with trout from a hatchery with the goal of boosting the bird population. Each spring, they add about 2000 fish to a four-mile stretch of the river between Wallingford and Cheshire. While the fish used to survive for only one season, they are now living much longer.
“The river is now healthy enough to support a good, year-round fish population,” Horn says. “There’s a really nice food chain in place.”
The nesting of the bald eagles seems to be the highlight of the river’s successes.
“The validation for all our hard work is those eagles,” Horn says. “And it was a lot of hard work.” Other members express equal enthusiasm for the return of the eagles.
Mushinsky, says she is thrilled about the eagles’ nesting and remains optimistic about the fate of the river.
“People now walk down to the river instead of being afraid of it,” she says. “It’s a complete turnaround…I take it as a great omen [of] a comeback of the river.”
The work of the QRWA has yet to be completed. They want the river to qualify for Class B status, which would make it fishable and swimmable for local residents.
Although the return of the eagles and the overall improvement in water quality are encouraging, the organization still has more hurdles to overcome. Clean water laws, the banning of DDT, and a decrease in pollution have helped improve the river, but the continued urbanization of the area poses environmental problems, some of them fatal to the wildlife.
Last July, a young osprey chose to perch on a cellular tower in Wallingford. It became entangled in a grille supporting the tower’s equipment and dangled helplessly, severely injuring its leg while trying to get free. The bird had to be euthanized.
Prolieferation of urban areas can also hinder an increase in eagle populations, as the birds avoid humans. “They’re shy birds and they don’t usually nest where there’s a lot of people,” Mushinsky says. Still, some bald eagles have surprised the QRWA by nesting in heavily populated areas. Horn tells me that a pair of bald eagles unexpectedly decided to uproot a nest of red-tailed hawks and build their own nest in a Connecticut backyard. Even more surprising, it was near a McDonald’s.
“I don’t know, maybe they’re french fry freaks,” he jokes.
The bald eagles who have moved to the Quinnipiac River have also settled in a surprisingly urban area. Mushinsky says that they chose a home that is “far from remote,” when they would usually build a nest “farther off the beaten trail.”
Whether or not they choose to live in more developed areas, eagles generally live near water with an adequate supply of fish. While the QRWA cannot stem urbanization along the river, its members are making efforts to prevent industries and communities from adding to the problem of environmental contamination.
One of these efforts involves “vegetated buffers,” artificial plantings of trees and bushes that are meant to contain contaminated runoff and provide the river with shade. This vegetation will be introduced in place of the natural foliage that urban developments have removed. Four buffers are planned in Meriden, Southington, Wellingford, and North Haven. Once these test buffers have are successfully in place, the QRWA plans to expand the project to local landowners and homeowners who will then become “friends of the river.” Homeowners reluctant to block a view of the river can plant waist-high vegetation.
The QRWA is also promoting the use of the river as a recreational site. New trails and boat launches are continually being added to the riverbank, and the QRWA itself offers canoeing and kayaking activities. Programs with the local school systems are also offering education and research activities for local youth to become more engaged with the river.
Even developers are becoming more environmentally aware. Rabina Properties, a real estate developer that plans to build a neighborhood in North Haven, contacted the QRWA before beginning the development and chose to designate the strip of property alongside the river as a public recreational area.
And the QRWA won’t stop at eagles. The group is conducting a project to pinpoint the locations of turtles along the river and to install a fish ladder that will allow the fish to access their original breeding grounds underwater.
There are still goals to reach, but Mushinsky believes that the river is in the process of making a strong comeback.
As for the bald eagles of the Quinnipiac, their immediate future is up in the air. Horn sees a few possibilities for the winter: the eagles may decide to migrate for the winter as a family, the mother and children may decide to move on and leave the father here, or the entire family may choose to winter on the river.
“Essex has been hanging around here since 2004, but now he’s got a wife and kids,” Horn says.
Whether or not the eagles decide to migrate for the season, now that they have a nest in the area it is likely that Essex and Queen Elizabeth I will continue to have their hatchlings here. Horn hopes that next year the eaglets will not take as long to fledge. The younger eaglet, born eight days after the elder, did not fledge until late August.
As the Quinnipiac River welcomes the family of bald eagles after what Mushinsky estimates must be centuries of absence, the efforts of the QWRA and other environmental organizations continue to work for the preservation of their habitat.
“It’s a great Connecticut success story,” says Milan Bull.