November Bald Eagles at Conowingo Dam

January 06, 2017  •  5 Comments

Just how many photographs of Bald Eagles does one need?  As many as you can get is the answer.  Maybe it's an obsession with getting the "perfect" photo.  Maybe that "perfect" photo doesn't exist because no matter how good a photo is, you will always try to get a better one.

November rolled around once again just like it always does and my photography efforts were focused on the White-tailed Deer rut, which was in full swing.  Lingering in the back of my mind was my upcoming trip to Conowingo Dam in Darlington, Maryland to photograph Bald Eagles with my good friend Tom Dorsey.  This was our second year visiting the Dam and I have such a great time, I hope it's the second of many.

Instead of going into detail about the dam and why the eagles are so attracted to it, I'm just going to direct you to my 2015 photo blog "World Famous Conowingo Eagles", where that information is covered thoroughly.

This year, Tom and I planned three days of shooting along the shore of the Susquehanna River a short distance below the powerful turbines of the dam.  However, the phrase, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry” seems fitting for this weekend.  A winter storm moved a little quicker than expected and cut our trip short by one day.

In this photo blog, I hope to share our experiences in this beautiful part of our country as we visited local restaurants, historic structures in Susquehanna State Park, and of course, photographed Bald Eagles at Conowingo Dam.

We spent a few late afternoon hours at the dam on our travel day.  We didn't have a lot of action to photograph but during that time, we met up with one of Tom's internet acquaintances.  Before the day was over we became good friends with Fernando "Fern" Trujillo, one of the administrators for the Facebook group "Conowingo Wildlife Photographers".  We all enjoyed dinner and shared photography stories at Woody's Crab House in North East, MD.

The next morning is when we got serious.

One of the coolest sights is to watch an eagle hunting for fish.  They may circle low or they may circle high but when they spot their prey, they drop their legs like the landing gear of an airplane and glide in to make their catch.

Bald EagleBald EagleConowingo Dam, Darlington, MD

 

But that's not always the case.  Sometimes you can be following a bird in your lens when all of a sudden, it disappears.  They can go into a complete dive and it happens so fast I have a hard time keeping up.  I have to admit, keeping up with a diving Bald Eagle would take a lot of practice.

Bald EagleBald EagleConowingo Dam, Darlington, MD

 

Photographing the catch is one of the fun parts of photographing the eagles.  Just like an airplane, birds usually take off and land into the wind so the direction they fish depends on which way the wind is blowing.  We all hope for the eagle to be close and flying towards us when they make the catch but it doesn't always happen that way.  The photographers usually have to settle for profile photos like in the following series.  Take note of the water ripples reflecting onto the underside of the eagle as it approaches the water.

Bald EagleBald EagleConowingo Dam, Darlington, MD

 

Bald EagleBald EagleConowingo Dam, Darlington, MD

 

Bald EagleBald EagleConowingo Dam, Darlington, MD

 

Bald EagleBald EagleConowingo Dam, Darlington, MD

 

Eagles are great fishermen but hey, none of God's creations are perfect. 

Bald Eagle Drops Its CatchBald Eagle Drops Its CatchConowingo Dam, Darlington, MD

 

This is the perfect time to talk about the light at Conowingo Dam.  It can be very harsh at times and if you are shooting before noon, you can be fairly certain that half of your subject will be lit up and the other half will be in the dark.

Bald EagleBald EagleConowingo Dam, Darlington, MD

 

There are visitors from all over the world seen at the dam November through January.  I even saw one from out of this world.

Generation X PoodleGeneration X Poodle

 

All joking aside, Tom and I like to set up along the water because we like the perspective and we have good conversation with the people shooting along side of us. 

Photographers at Conowingo DamPhotographers at Conowingo Dam

 

Here are a few more Bald Eagle photos before we break for lunch.

Bald EagleBald EagleConowingo Dam, Darlington, MD

 

Bald EagleBald EagleConowingo Dam, Darlington, MD

 

If you are a reader of my blogs you already know that it takes five years for a Bald Eagle to develop its signature white head and tail. The eagle in the next photo is probably a four year old.

Bald EagleBald EagleConowingo Dam, Darlington, MD

 

When an eagle picks a fish from the water it's not a delicate grab.  This immature eagle went in for the catch, missed, and flipped it in the air.

Bald Eagle Missing FishBald Eagle Missing FishConowingo Dam, Darlington, MD

 

It looks like this eagle was shot out of a canon.  But I shot it with a Canon.  Get it?  Ha ha! That's okay if you don't, camera people will.

Bald EagleBald EagleConowingo Dam, Darlington, MD

 

Ah, finally time for lunch.  Same as last year, we had to go to the Union Hotel in nearby Port Deposit, MD.  Great food and a lot of history surrounds you.

Union HotelUnion HotelPort Deposit, MD

 

Once mid-afternoon arrives, the sun begins to fall below the hillside behind you and most of the photography is best when the bird is in the air.

Bald EagleBald EagleConowingo Dam, Darlington, MD

 

Bald EagleBald EagleConowingo Dam, Darlington, MD

 

It's not even 3:00 and we are standing in the shade.  Space along the river was limited so Tom had to set up on a little island that I quickly dubbed "Dorsey Island".

Tom Dorsey on Dorsey IslandTom Dorsey on Dorsey IslandConowingo Dam, Darlington, MD

 

Once the shade touched the far shoreline we decided to pack up and leave.  Before our trip, Tom was researching some historical areas that we could visit in the waning light of the day.  We drove about 10 miles to the Susquehanna State Park and a 1700’s grist mill.  The park’s dense woodlands are on the eastern edge of the Cerulean Warbler’s range making it a popular place for birders in the spring. 

1794 Grist Mill1794 Grist MillSusquehanna State Park
Havre De Grace, MD

 

There is a trail running along the Susquehanna River that connects to the Conowingo Dam parking lot.  When you are looking west from along the river, you can see Conowingo Dam in the distance.

Susquehanna River Below Conowingo DamSusquehanna River Below Conowingo DamSusquehanna State Park
Havre De Grace, MD

Maryland's #1 Crab CakeMaryland's #1 Crab CakePort House Grill in North East, MD

I have to give a plug for a restaurant in North East, MD.  We ate dinner at the Port House Grill which has award winning crab cakes two years running.  All crab meat; no filler.  I posted the photo of my meal to the left to show off the large, sweet lumps of Maryland crab meat.

We arrived at the dam the next morning before sunrise.  It was very foggy and when the sun finally came up, you couldn’t look down river because of the bright yellow glow.  I think this boatload of fishermen was a popular subject of many of the photographers along the river that morning.

Early Morning FishermenEarly Morning FishermenConowingo Dam, Darlington, MD

 

One aspect of photography that you really need to practice at Conowingo Dam is to use manual camera settings.  If the bird is flying below the horizon, you can get away with aperture priority or shutter priority but you can’t make that guarantee because the birds fly high and low giving the photographer an ever-changing background, playing havoc with the camera sensor.

Every now and then I would verify that I am still on the correct settings by photographing the gray sunlit wall of the dam and checking the histogram.  If not correct, I’d change the settings and repeat.  It just so happens I was in the process of making changes when an event all photographers are waiting for happened right in front of me.

When an eagle catches a fish, one or more eagles in the immediate area begin to chase the eagle with the fish.  If they catch up, the fish may be dropped or we may get to see a scuffle between the eagles when the others try to steal the fish.  That occurred within 100 yards in front of me and I caught it with my camera.  Now for the bad news!  Because I was making exposure changes, all of the images were overexposed.  I managed to salvage them in Photoshop but a properly exposed photo would have produced a better overall image.

This is a six photo series of the steal attempt ending with a chase.  Click on the small photos to see them larger.

Bald Eagle Fish Steal AttemptBald Eagle Fish Steal AttemptConowingo Dam, Darlington, MD Bald Eagle Fish Steal AttemptBald Eagle Fish Steal AttemptConowingo Dam, Darlington, MD

 

Bald Eagle Fish Steal AttemptBald Eagle Fish Steal AttemptConowingo Dam, Darlington, MD

 

Bald Eagle Fish Steal AttemptBald Eagle Fish Steal AttemptConowingo Dam, Darlington, MD Bald Eagle Fish Steal AttemptBald Eagle Fish Steal AttemptConowingo Dam, Darlington, MD

 

Bald Eagle Fish Steal AttemptBald Eagle Fish Steal AttemptConowingo Dam, Darlington, MD

 

While photographing the elk rut last September, Tom introduced me to Mark Hendricks who resides in the Baltimore area.  Mark drove up to see us and spend the day until we had to leave to beat the incoming winter storm.  Mark is a professor, professional speaker, author, and photographer and is a true pleasure to hang out with. Good FriendsGood FriendsDan Gomola, Mark Hendricks, and Tom Dorsey
Conowingo Dam, Darlington, MD

 

The weather was so beautiful that we didn't want to leave and the wind began to change directions in our favor allowing eagles to fish toward us.  Just as we decided to pack up our gear the following eagle dropped out of nowhere and picked a fish out of the water.

Bald EagleBald EagleConowingo Dam, Darlington, MD

 

Bald EagleBald EagleConowingo Dam, Darlington, MD

 

Bald EagleBald EagleConowingo Dam, Darlington, MD

 

Bald EagleBald EagleConowingo Dam, Darlington, MD

 

Bald EagleBald EagleConowingo Dam, Darlington, MD

 

Bald EagleBald EagleConowingo Dam, Darlington, MD

 

Even though it was a sunny day with temperatures above 70, the winter storm was beginning across northern Pennsylvania.

One Week After Super MoonOne Week After Super MoonConowingo Dam, Darlington, MD

 

Luckily, there was a walking club at the dam that day having a walking event and they had a booth selling snacks, hot dogs, brats, and drinks.  After lunch we bid farewell to Mark and headed for northern Pennsylvania.

Good FriendsGood FriendsMark Hendricks and Tom Dorsey
Conowingo Dam, Darlington, MD

 

The outside temperature dropped 50 degrees between Darlington, MD and DuBois, PA and was accompanied by strong winds.  Snow was falling but we made it home just fine.

By the way, there is one more Conowingo Dam Bald Eagle blog coming soon.  After checking the weather and mulling it over during the Thanksgiving break,  my wife Elena and I met up with Tom and his wife Jeanne the following weekend for more Maryland fun and photographing Bald Eagles.

View the next Conowingo Dam Bald Eagle blog now by clicking here.

Until next time,

Dan


Comments

5.Willard C Hill(non-registered)
Perhaps your best post yet. Excellent writing and story and the photography is just astounding.
4.Bill Friggle(non-registered)
Great blog and amazing shots. You have shots I still dream of getting. Great job. Enjoyed the story and pictures very much.
3.Larry Downing,(non-registered)
Awesome photos, all of them! Cheers
2.Donna Mohney(non-registered)
Once again, Dan, you have outdone yourself- great read and great photos!
1.Jim Weixel(non-registered)
Dan, I have never seen such a fine collection of Bald Eagle photos! How exciting; from the colors, to the attitudes of the birds, to the feeling of being right there with them. Congratulations!
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