A lucky and rewarding encounter with the Bald Eagle, one of the enduring symbols of America, in Maryland’s Conowingo Dam
“Two birds that I wanted to see on my trip here were the hummingbird and the Bald Eagle,” I said.
“Bald Eagle? You just need to drive down to the Conowingo Dam in Maryland,” replied Hank, our guide for the day at the Sunday birdwalk at Bucktoe Creek in Pennsylvania.
This discussion took place after a wonderful morning of bird watching with like-minded people. Hank told me that the Conowingo Dam was an hour’s drive from New Castle, Delaware where I was put up. Back at my hotel, I looked up the place online and realized what Hank said was very true. The Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) were a sure shot at the dam. The only problem seemed how far off the eagles would be from the embankment. All the blogs I read instructed visitors to bring the biggest lenses possible. Now this put me off a bit; I did not have my binoculars and my modest lens was incapable of viewing/capturing very distant subjects. Anyway, the next weekend I decided to check the place out, albeit with very little hope of getting good views of the eagles.
Boy, was I in for a shock! The moment I parked the car, an eagle swooped and landed on a tree near the parking lot. I was elated. Such proximity I had not expected. But there was also something that I had expected – an array of photographers lined up with lenses that looked like real cannons — 500mm and 600mm lenses plus a converter seemed to be the most preferred setup. This made me and my 300mm feel dwarfed.
Within the next couple of minutes, however, I realized I could not just spot but also observe the eagles very well as they flew by the parking lot over the Susquehanna river. And it was not just an eagle or two, but several. There were also quite a few Black vultures and a lot of gulls and terns. For the next three hours or so, I had a wonderful time watching the eagles fly by, perch on the trees, and even fish! Unexpectedly, I also got some decent shots.
The high wall of the dam, which is a part of a hydroelectric project, was just a few hundred meters from the parking lot. When the turbines run, large intake valves suck water and fish from the Susquehanna river, through the dam. This is known to stun the fish, which then get caught by the Bald eagles who are waiting a few hundred metres downstream.
The way these eagles fish is a delight to watch. In classic eagle style they swoop down from above, although not too high, and very suddenly open their talons and align them right under and in front of their beaks with an almost direct line of sight forming between their eyes, talons, and the quarry.
Next is the impact. There is a splash when the talons are in the water, digging into the fish, and the wings are in upstroke.
The last is the lift-off stage where the powerful downstroke lifts the bird along with its quarry into the air and away from the water surface.
Any minute calculation error on the part of the eagle can cost it a meal. The eagle may end up missing the fish entirely or the fish may slip from the talons during liftoff.