One doesn't have to go to Haines, Alaska to view the American Bald Eagle. A little known treasure exists right here in Connecticut.

Each winter, from early January to mid-March, Bald Eagles migrate south from Canada and northern New England to feed on fish in the ice-free waters below the Shepaug Dam on the Housatonic River in Southbury and the open waters of the lower Connecticut River in Essex.

It is estimated that about 100 eagles migrate to Connecticut each winter - 80 along the lower Connecticut River and 20 at the Shepaug Dam.

Since fish comprise at least 75 percent of the Bald Eagles diet, the Shepaug Dam is especially appealing to the wintering birds. The hydroelectric station's operation prevents water from freezing, making it easy for the eagles to feed on the fish below the dam. The Shepaug Eagle Observation Area, celebrating its 20th year, has had thousands of visitors observing eagles and viewing exhibits. The program is managed by Northeast Utilities, with volunteers from the CT Audubon Coastal Center at Milford Point and guidance provided by the CT Department of Environmental Protection.

Once considered "endangered", thanks to conservation efforts, the Bald Eagle was reclassified federally as "threatened" in 1996 in all states but Alaska (not found in Hawaii). The bird is native only to North America and can be found as far north as Alaska and as far south as the Florida Keys. The Bald Eagle was officially adopted as the national emblem of the United States of America in 1782. The Bald Eagle ranges in length from 34-43 inches, with a wingspan of 6-71/2 feet. Both female and male eagles appear identical, but the females are a little larger, weighing 10-14 pounds, while the males range in weight from 8-10 pounds.

At the Shepaug Bald Eagle Observation Area one can usually view immature and mature birds. Immature birds show a variable grayish-brown and white plumage with dark eyes and beaks and yellow legs. The adult birds, at five years of age, have the distinctive white head and tail with yellow eyes, beak and legs. The average lifespan in the wild is 25-30 years.

Bald Eagles are easily upset so protection zones around sites of eagle activity are created. Winter is a stressful time for eagles. Disturbance at winter-feeding areas can lead to life threatening situations for the birds. If these birds are frequently disturbed from feeding and forced to travel to a different area for food, their lives may be threatened. Adult birds are disturbed more easily than juveniles.

On Dec. 26, three adults were seen perching in trees and feeding on fish caught below the Shepaug Dam. One eagle was wearing a gold leg band, indicating that it was from Mass. The Shepaug Bald Eagle Observation Area is open to the public and groups January through mid-March on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Admission is free, but reservations are required by calling (800) 368-8954, Tuesday-Friday. While the observation area has several viewing scopes, it is advisable to bring binoculars and dress warmly.