Lower Susquehanna River, Conowingo, Maryland
The Long Awaited Bald Eagle Adventure Begins
It's 5 AM Thursday morning, and the alarm wakes me from a not-so-deep sleep. I always have trouble getting a good nights’ sleep before heading out to photograph wildlife that excites me – last night was no exception. I have been planning this trip for months, and the time has finally crept up. Today I drive to the Conowingo Dam in Darlington, Maryland to spend two days photographing the bald eagles that not only call this home but also welcomes the migrating bald eagles coming down from the north
Overcast Skies Might Be Just the Right Forecast
The forecast today calls for mild temperatures with overcast skies - not conducive to taking pictures of birds in flight, but if there is action down on the river, it will be just fine. Sometimes photographing bald eagles on cloudy days works well due to the high contrast in the coloring of the birds’ feathers. Exposing for the highlights is so much easier without direct sun, and the white feathers on their head and tail always create a problem, but I'll get into that more in a bit.
Catching Up With Friends, Human and Feathered
By 5:30 am I am out the door and on my way. The drive to the dam is one hour and forty-five minutes. Upon arrival, I immediately see all the familiar faces that frequent here this time of year. “This time” being middle November through the new year. By Thanksgiving weekend there can be as many as 300 bald eagles flying around or perched in the trees above the parking lot and the stanchions of the dam and on the two towers on the island in the middle of the Susquehanna River which they seem to love.
How To Find the Perfect Photography Spot
After parking my vehicle, I walk along the fence line to observe how the water from the dam is flowing. When the dam's generators are not running, the eagles usually fish closer to it, but if there is a good flow, action will most likely be downriver. This day, the water was running well, so I made my way through the gate about halfway down the viewing area and climbed down the large rocks with all my gear and set up right at the water's edge. This perspective is what I prefer! I will be shooting at eye level as eagles grab their prey.
As the morning proceeds, I can already tell today might be a few weeks early. I count roughly only 40-60 eagles. I knew that might be the case with this being only the second week of November. Nevertheless, photographs or not, I just really love being out with my camera in the wild and waiting for something, or nothing, to happen. All in all, though, there is enough action to start to fill my memory card with promising images and with tomorrow still to go, well who knows?
What You Need to Know About the Conowingo Dam
If you are a first-time visitor to "the dam," there are a few things you need to know. First, this year they are doing construction in the employee parking lot so getting there before sunrise is a must. Otherwise, you will be turned away at the gate and be forced to drive a mile back up the road for the shuttle bus to take you back down. Taking the shuttle might not seem like a big deal, but if you bring food or coffee, etc. with you in your car, you will have to carry all of it along with all your camera gear to your spot of choice. Also, if it is a cold day and your car is parked a mile back, you won’t have it near-by to warm up in and believe me, it gets really cold on the rivers-edge.
Next, I would like to explain the viewing situation. There are three main areas to see and photograph the eagles. They are all in a row so going back and forth between them is no problem at all.
The first spot is called the "fishing pier." Here you can stand along a rotunda at the base of the dam. The bonus here is that it is closest to the bathroom. Proximity to the loo might not seem all that important, but when there's eagle-action, you don't want to be away on break for too long.
The next spot is called the "fence line." This spot is about mid-way down, but it’s much higher above the river than the "fishing pier." The beautiful thing about this location is that you could be only feet away from your parked car (remember the coffee and food you had with you?) I don't like this perspective myself since shooting down or up is never visually pleasing to me, but others love this location for the convenience.
The last spot is at the "boat launch." I usually start here in the morning for the first few hours due to the rising sun coming up from behind. Early in the morning, further down by the other two locations, you are shooting into the light, and that's always a recipe for disaster.
The boat launch offers the lowest perspective to the hunting bald eagles, so if there's action at this end, you should come away with some great photos. Once the sun gets higher up in the sky, I like to move to the fence line and climb down the rocks to keep that same perspective.
Well now that I have shared some tips for viewing, I'm going to include a couple of other essential shooting tips for this location:
7 More Essential Tips For Photographing Eagles at Conowingo Dam
1. Exposing for highlights when shooting birds with white feathers is a must.
The feathering on the bald eagles is hugely challenging so be sure to capture the detail in the head feathers.
A convenient way to set your settings for the above is to meter off the white signs either on the stanchion at the base of the dam or the sign across the river on the island.
2. Shutter Speed
Shooting at 1/1600 of a second should be fast enough since bald eagles don't usually fly that quickly, but I try not to go below 1/2000sec.
3. You Should Pay Attention to the Bird.
After an eagle grabs his fish, you pay attention to the head of the bird as it will then do what is called the “fish check.” After the eagle grabs its fish out of the water, and as it takes flight, it turns its head under its body and looks to see if it has the catch.
4. Food-Fight! Be Ready for Action
After the “fish check,” stay focused on that bird because more than likely a second, fish-less eagle will challenge yours for his catch. These fish-fights are the highlight of the day for photographers.
5. Be Ready to Move.
When an eagle with a fish flies over your head and up towards the parking lot, take note. That is an excellent spot to move to if you want a closeup of them while eating.
6. More Photo Ops.
Among the bald eagles expect to see plenty of turkey vultures, terns, cormorants and several species of gulls.
7. Lastly, the night before you plan to go, call the Conowingo hotline (1-888-457-4076)
The automated message will advise if generators are running. These generators open the dam's gates allowing water to flow, when this happens, the eagle action is better near the dam. This is because fish are sucked through the gates either killing them or putting them in an unconscious state making them easy prey for the eagles. Open generators = excited bald eagles = great photography opportunities!
When Friday morning arrived, so did the cold weather and strong winds. The temps didn’t get out of the 30’s, and with 30+ mph winds, the action was almost non-existent. It was so windy that I even saw a few seagulls walking! Never-the-less, any day at the Conowingo Dam is a good day when spent amongst old friends, new friends and watching the eagles soar!
Editor's Note on Damming Waterways:
There is much controversy surrounding the continued damming of waterways. Conowingo Dam is no exception. Constructed In 1928 to provide hydroelectric power, Conowingo Dam was hailed as a positive step in modernizing this part of the United States. After seventy-plus years of study, we now understand that damming can do more damage than good. Damming severely alters vast areas, in this case over 27,000 sq, miles (69,930 sq.km) . It destroys entire ecosystems and in some instances contributes to the extinction of species. Thanks to technological advances, energy once dependent on hydroelectric dams is now available from more efficient, environmentally friendly sources. We support efforts to restore the river and surrounding areas back to their natural and healthier states; a complicated and multifaceted challenge. However, there is rarely a single side to any question. Some species have been able to adapt and thrive in the artificial habitat created by Conowingo Dam. Bald Eagles are one example. While Destination: Wildlife does not support the obstruction of natural waterways, we do celebrate all of nature's species, as well as the economic opportunities responsible wildlife tourism can bring to communities. We encourage responsible bird and wildlife watching, wildlife photography, and the enjoyment of the Conowingo area's towns and businesses.
About Contributor, Joe Gliozzo
Joe Gliozzo is a Wall Street trader by day and wildlife photographer by passion. He lives in New Jersey with his family and is frequent contributor to Destination: Wildlife. Follow Joe on Facebook