No longer endangered: Why does Connecticut continue to monitor its bald eagle population?

·4 min read

Strapped with three Nikon cameras, Jeffrey Vlaun scanned the skies over the Norwich harbor last week, ready to capture shots of bald eagles in action.

“I started looking about three weeks ago and noticed a few here and there and since then they built up to probably about a dozen,” Vlaun told The Bulletin.

Vlaun, a gaming commissioner at Foxwoods, has lived in Norwich since 1994 and said as a hobby he likes to take pictures of all types of birds; but his favorite are the birds of prey: owls, osprey, peregrine falcons, and, of course, bald eagles.

“I just like watching them come in for the bunker [fish]," he said. "And they have been landing close, too: on poles at the marina; and you can actually see them eating a fish and taking off again."

A bald eagle is silhouetted against the setting sun over the Thames River in Norwich recently.
A bald eagle is silhouetted against the setting sun over the Thames River in Norwich recently.

Brian Hess is the supervisor of the Wildlife Diversity Program at the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. In an interview last week, he said spotting the iconic birds congregating in large numbers is not uncommon at this time of year, especially where there is a reliable food source.

But that has not always been the case.

More: Series of deadly winter fires hits Eastern CT, including blaze that killed Plainfield man

“For the longest time in Connecticut we didn’t have nesting bald eagles here in the state,” he said.

In the late 1970s, bald eagles found themselves on the country’s first-ever endangered species list. At the time, widespread use of the fertilizer DDT created a specific threat to eagles. Working its way up the food chain from insects, to fish and other species hunted by bald eagles, the toxin caused female bald eagles to lay eggs that were too thin to survive.

More: Norwich songwriter fights through pandemic to celebrate 45 years in performing arts

With the removal of DDT from the ecosystem and a concerted effort by state and federal wildlife officials in Connecticut and across the country, the nation’s bald eagle population began to return.

Jeff Vlaun of Norwich uses a 500-millimeter lens to photograph bald eagles Monday at Howard T. Brown Memorial Park in downtown Norwich.
Jeff Vlaun of Norwich uses a 500-millimeter lens to photograph bald eagles Monday at Howard T. Brown Memorial Park in downtown Norwich.

In 1992, the same year bald eagles were moved from the national endangered species list to the country’s threatened species list, officials in Connecticut identified the state’s first “post-DDT” nest, Hess said.

In 2015, when Hess began working at DEEP and five years after bald eagles were officially removed from the country’s list of threatened and endangered species, Connecticut wildlife officials registered 30 bald eagle nests.

More: Jobs are recovering in Conn., but Norwich area businesses still finding hiring challenges

Today, Hess said his department is aware of about 75 nests supporting a population of anywhere between 150 and 200 bald eagles.

“The population is still growing pretty extensively,” he said. “The reason we still tend to monitor them now…is they are an indicator species, they can be that canary in the coal mine letting us know of other environmental problems that could be out there, so that is a good reason to keep an eye on them as well.”

Jeff Vlaun of Norwich photographed this bald eagle catching a fish in downtown Norwich recently.
Jeff Vlaun of Norwich photographed this bald eagle catching a fish in downtown Norwich recently.

Known as “generalists” when it comes to finding a food source, Hess explained, bald eagles will both scavenge and hunt for food. The same descriptor could also be applied to their mating habits.

“'They mate for life, but they don’t mourn for a minute,'” Hess said, quoting a former colleague in the DEEP Wildlife Diversity Program.

More: A return to schools for Norwich police officers? Board of education, police chief eye benefits

Well known for keeping the same partner for life and returning to the same nest year after year, Hess said should one member of a nesting pair die, the mate can be quick to move on.

What threatens bald eagles now?

For now, there is plenty of space and food availability for the state’s bald eagle population to continue to grow, but they do not exist without threat.

“Right now one of the bigger threats is human disturbance,” said Hess.

More: US Secretary of Education underlines need, opportunity for tech education in Conn. visit

With a master list of known bald eagle nests in the state, Hess said DEEP works to ensure nearby development projects are timed so as not to interfere with any nesting pairs while they are around. Officials might close a public trail for a period of time for the same reason, he added.

A bald eagle flies by the Norwich Police Department in downtown Norwich recently.
A bald eagle flies by the Norwich Police Department in downtown Norwich recently.

“There are also public relations issues we like to hit on when it comes to viewing these charismatic birds,” Hess said.

It’s important to “respect the bird,” he continued. “If the bird changes its behavior because you are there – that means you are too close.”

Bald eagle watchers should also “respect the habitat,” he added, by not trampling vegetation or trespassing on private property to see a bald eagle.

More: Local Flavor: Here are five places to grab a bite and warm up in Eastern Connecticut

Finally, Hess reminded members of the public to, “respect each other” when they find themselves in a group watching a bald eagle.

“We have eagles there because of a lot of hard work that a lot of people put in over the course of the last 50 years,” he said. “It’s an encouraging thing to say that we really can make a difference and have a positive impact.”

This article originally appeared on The Bulletin: No longer endangered, bald eagles still closely watched in Connecticut

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting