It is early March and eaglets are hatching along the Susquehanna and Chesapeake Bay region. Great Blue Herons are building nests as are cormorants and other shore birds. These waters provide a year-long food source, but soon the resident wildlife will all need an even greater abundance of food! They won’t have to search very far. Ten miles from where the Susquehanna feeds into the Chesapeake Bay sits the Conowingo Hydroelectric Dam. The dam was commissioned in 1928 and houses power-generating turbines and spill gates. The water impounded by the dam forms a 14-mile long reservoir, and the tailrace downstream of the dam never freezes. An abundance of fish, including the American shad, yellow and white perch, walleye, and invasive catfish are found near the dam, where there is a fish elevator to help with upstream migrations.
Listed by the Audubon Society as one of the “Top Five Hotspots for Photographing Bald Eagles,” Conowingo’s proximity to live action thrills attracts large crowds during the late fall through spring. In the spring, the eagles are mostly fishing for large shad. They can be seen diving towards the water with their large, yellow talons extended and plucking a stunned fish from the top of the water. Sometimes, they will land in a nearby tree and consume the fish literally a few feet from spectators and photographers. With up to four eagles in a nest, there are lots of mouths to feed, resulting in plenty of activity near the dam. Great blue herons, cormorants and gulls also take advantage of the food supply and provide plenty of additional photo ops.
When the warm days of summer approach, the wildlife activity at the dam generally slows down. The eaglets are now approaching adult size and heron chicks are fledging from their nests. The trees are covered in leaves and the eagles retreat to shady areas to stay cool. There are still occasional fishing events at the dam as the wildlife feeds year-round.
As fall approaches, the activity picks up. Immature bald eagles are learning to fish and fend for themselves. Sometimes, the adult parents can be seen teaching their kids the tricks of the trade – namely how to catch a fish and protect it from poachers. The fall colors make for a spectacular backdrop as the eagles gather at the dam. They can be seen flying, fishing, teaching and chasing one another for the prized fish. It is especially thrilling to see a catch right in front of you as the eagle approaches the water with its out-stretched talons. Then, with one quick swipe, the fish is caught and quickly inspected by the eagle attempting to take flight. They may fly right over your head or they may fly down the river. There is usually a chase and fierce competition once the fish is caught. The lucky few often see a dropped fish caught by another eagle in mid-air.
As Thanksgiving approaches, the number of eagles increases as the nearby waters freeze. A fog is often seen coming off the waters of the Susquehanna as the sun rises. The combination of fog, cool air, low clouds and early morning feedings makes for spectacular sunrises and photography at the dam. Eagles can be seen sitting in the towers on the island near the dam and in the trees that line the parking lot. As the trees lose their leaves, the eagles become more and more visible. People from all over the country and even Canada visit the dam for this fall extravaganza! Photographers with long lenses line the fence line.
As winter approaches, the trees will once again be void of leaves. The eagles begin their mating rituals, consisting of aerial displays and even locking talons as they spin down towards the water. The eagles can also be seen carrying nesting material to their rather large nests. They lay their eggs near the beginning of February and incubate them for a month. The eaglets hatch in March and thus begins a new cycle of eagle activity at the dam.
The best conditions are when the winds are light and not from the north-northwest. Be sure to check the Conowingo Dam Hotline for their generation schedule (888-457-4076). If the water is high and/or all the generators are running, the water gets pushed north of the island and makes it difficult for the eagles to see fish between the dam and the boat ramp. There is generally good viewing from the fishing pier and along the fence line to the boat ramp.
Parking is limited, and the best times are around sunrise and later in the afternoon. I find that ideal conditions are light, southerly winds with partly cloudy skies. The eagles really get active at sunrise! Sometimes they stay active and sometimes they sit in the trees to conserve energy.
Regarding cameras: you will see everything from cell phone cameras to high-end professional bodies with 800 mm lenses on tripods. This is called “big glass,” and there is a lot of it at Conowingo! Most folks find that a 200-400 mm works well with a 600 mm being ideal. If you are renting, a fast frame rate is best, and go for the longest reach that you can afford. To capture eagles in flight, you will need a high shutter speed. Usually 1/2500 sec works well. A good set of general settings is f/7.1, 1/2500 sec shutter speed/ Auto ISO, and multiple focus points selected with servo focus for tracking the birds in flight.
Susquehanna State Park offers a wide variety of outdoor recreational opportunities as well as points of historical significance. The park is home to some of the most popular mountain biking trails in Maryland and the river itself beacons fishermen and boaters alike.