It was nearing the end of October and I was talking to a fellow wildlife photographer and friend, Tom Dorsey, when he said to me "I've always wanted to go to Conowingo". Of course, I replied, "Me too; just never made it". Within the next few days, we had hotel rooms booked, vacation days scheduled, and our fingers crossed that the weather would cooperate two weeks away, to make a trip to Darlington, Maryland and Conowingo Dam.
Normally, I wouldn't find a lot of fun standing along the shores of a river, below a dam, for nine hours a day. But November through January is a different story as Conowingo Dam attracts over a hundred species of birds with the Bald Eagles stealing the show.
So why do the eagles come to Conowingo? The Conowingo Dam is a large, hydroelectric dam, owned by Exelon, in the lower Susquehanna River in Darlington, Maryland. When the turbines are running, large intake valves suck water, fish and eels, through the dam and out the other side. Getting sucked through the turbines stuns some of the fish and eels causing them to float, providing excellent feeding for birds. The dam is a secondary facility so their electric generation is erratic. From what I understand, it usually happens in the morning and late afternoon.
Conowingo is considered to be one of the best places in the world to watch eagles. Photographers like it because the position of the sun is nearly always behind the viewer.
Tom and I arrived at the dam about 7:00 a.m. on Friday, November 13th. It was the first time visiting the dam for both of us so we didn't know what to expect and planned to learn as we go. I've read stories that there have been as high as 300 eagles seen along the shores and in the air. There weren't that many this weekend but we were still satisfied with the 50 plus eagles we did see.
The Susquehanna River is very wide. Near the dam, the water only extended about half way across the nearly 1,000 yard river boundaries with boulders occupying the second half. The waters edge that we could see is nearly 400 yards away from where we were set up. I was using a Canon 600mm lens and a 1.4x extender on either a Canon 7D MK II or 5D MK III body. Even with that power, it was better when the birds were on "our side" of the river.
In the Google Earth image to the left, our position was the green dot and the lines reference the distances I was explaining above.
No matter how many times I see and photograph our national bird, they still impress me with their beauty.
One of my biggest goals of the weekend was to photograph the moment an eagle snatches a fish out of the water. Over the next two days, they did not disappoint. Here is a frame just as the eagle was inches above the water and its prey.
And the moment right after it locked onto the fish.
Then, it's off to a nearby tree to eat.
Another frequent visitor at Conowingo is the Black Vulture. There were a lot more of them than Bald Eagles. While scanning the far shoreline, I photographed this large flock soaking up the sun. On a side note, there are signs on the fences around the park warning people about the Black Vultures. Apparently, they like to chew on rubber and plastic and have destroyed vehicle windshield wipers and trim.
There were several juvenile Bald Eagles in the area. A Bald Eagle doesn't have its notorious white head and tail feathers until it is at least five years old. From a fledgling to five years they have varying degrees of white and brown feathers.
It may be young but this juvenile eagle has mastered the hunt and catch.
Getting back to the dam for a moment, I mentioned earlier that when they generate power, it becomes a feeding frenzy for the birds. Before the water is released they sound an alarm that sounds like a fire siren. When the alarm sounds, the gulls take to the air because they know what is going to happen. In my observation, the eagles didn't react as quickly but seemed to wait patiently until they could actually see the fish. If you are one of the people standing near the shoreline, you were about to get your feet wet. They generated electricity three times while we were there. I would estimate the water rose about four feet two of the times and less the third time.
To give you a better idea, I put together a short video of cell phone video clips and a 5D MK III closeup of the exiting water mixed in.
I was very impressed with an eagles ability to change direction in the sky in a split second. Note in the image below the varying angles of the head, body, wings, and tail as this eagle likely spotted a fish in the water.
Some very dramatic photographs can be made with an abrupt change of direction.
There are several historic towns in the area so our plan on the first day was to find a local eatery for lunch.
The Union Hotel, in the nearby historic town of Port Deposit, MD, caught our eye as we drove by so we decided to stop for lunch. The experience was a step back in time. The hotel was constructed, circa 1794, of hemlock logs, during the heyday of the Susquehanna canal. Some of the canal beds still exist across from the building.
The antique laden front porch creates an atmosphere that Tom and I agreed our wives would love.
The restaurant features a 1790's atmosphere complete with candlelight, a warm hearth, and the servers were even dressed in colonial attire. The menu offered a wide variety of food with many seasonal offerings. Of course, my eyes were hungrier than my stomach. I had a burger that was at least an inch and a half thick and cooked perfectly throughout. I wanted to try something different so I ordered a side dish of sauteed broccoli in garlic. It was awesome. OK, now I'm really getting hungry!
The lunch crowd began filtering in just about the time we were leaving. That was alright with me because I got to explore the other rooms of the building.
This building was a hotel and tavern in the 1700's. The owner, and some of her employees, say it is haunted by a ghostly lady in a blue gown. If I had known that before my visit, I may not have gone to the restroom alone.
After taking another 20 minutes to explore the historic town of Port Deposit, we headed back to the Dam.
The subjects in the next three photos were about 300 yards away so the image quality isn't top quality but I have to share this action. Just as this juvenile eagle was about to snatch a fish out of the water, a smaller and swifter gull got to it first. You can see the fish in the mouth of the gull.
The eagle didn't appreciate that and began the chase.
After some dramatic maneuvers, the gull was able to escape with the catch.
As the sun began to set, the lighting became poor for photography unless the bird was high enough, like this four year old, to be struck by the waning light.
Tom and I managed to get some photos of the Black Vultures that were hanging around all day. We made it through the first day without losing a windshield wiper.
Our hotel was in the town of North East, MD. If you ever get there, I recommend dinner at Woody's Crab House, voted #2 best restaurant in North East, MD. Tom told me the Chesapeake Bay Crab Cakes were delicious and I would recommend "Woody's Scampi" (shrimp scampi with linguini), any day. After washing it down with a couple beers, we passed on the nightlife for an early bedtime because 4:30 a.m. would come very quickly.
We arrived at the dam well before sunrise on a very chilly and windy day two. Despite the cold, it was a beautiful and welcome sight as the sun peaked above the horizon.
It was time for Tom and I to make sure our settings were correct for the changing light conditions.
The morning sun even makes an extremely large, concrete, hydroelectric plant look good.
Just like the day before, the eagles were very active. Bald EagleConowingo Dam, Susquehanna River, Darlington, MD
Let the fishing tournament begin.
It is not uncommon for fights to happen when one eagle catches a fish and the others don't. Unfortunately, I have to wait until my next visit to capture a closeup fight. When you see a chase and fight, you need to be quick. I wasn't quick enough and the few I photographed weren't sharp enough to share. I did, however, catch a chase along the far shore.
The Bald Eagle is so intense, yet graceful, as they use the swift air currents to lower themselves to the water.
The Black Vultures were flying around all day. Although some would call them ugly because of their wrinkled, grayish head, there is beauty in the silvery underside of their primary feathers glistening in the sunlight with every wing beat.
Not all the fish pulled from the water were big. As a viewer, I couldn't always tell if they had one or not.
When the fish was small, the eagles didn't even bother to land before eating it. They made the exchange from feet to mouth on the fly.
With food in its mouth, this eagle is already looking for the next one.
The action is sporadic and there was time to sit down or take a walking break after standing in one place for several hours. During this time, Tom and I met several people and made some new Facebook friends. Some not from this country. One thing for sure, there were several hundred thousand dollars in photography equipment along the river that day.
Another nice catch. I can tell you... it never gets boring!
With head down and nobody in pursuit, it's off to a perch to enjoy the meal.
One thing Tom and I discussed was the apparent respect, or tolerance, the eagles and vultures had for one another. They shared the river bank without aggression.
An eagle has better than perfect eyesight. Even while soaring in the sky, it can spot its prey from great distances. In case you missed it, I posted a photo blog in March, 2015, called "Eagle Eye". If you are interested in eagles, you may find it interesting.
We all know the Bald Eagle is the national bird of the United States of America. Do you know it is also our national animal? It's true.
Although I usually don't photograph birds flying above my head, the beauty of the Bald Eagle and its various wing positions makes it worth while to keep on clicking.
Seven feet of feathers never looked so beautiful!
Even though the sun began to fall behind the hills behind us we had a tough time pulling ourselves away to start the drive home. Looking back, we probably should have stayed through Sunday and suffered the consequences of fatigue at work on Monday. Facebook friends have indicated that the next day, Sunday, was one of the most active days this year.
The two days we had were great and Conowingo is an item that Tom and I can cross off of our bucket lists. I hope I was able to convey the great experience we had those two days in November. It is one I will never forget and hope to relive again next year.
Thanks for looking,