A bald eagle dives toward a glint of silver in the Susquehanna River. It leans back, spreads its wings like a drag chute and snatches a wriggling fish from the water. With a few flaps of its massive wings, the eagle is high in the air again, but not high enough to avoid being dive-bombed by another hungry eagle. Startled, the first eagle drops the fish which, just before hitting the water’s surface, is snatched by a third eagle, which lands in a nearby tree and gulps down its sashimi lunch.
Wildlife photographer Emily Carter Mitchell photographed this spectacular scene last year at the Conowingo Dam in Darlington, Md., but you don’t have to be a professional shutterbug to capture the avian action. Each fall, upward of 150 bald eagles gather at the hydroelectric dam and fight over fish that have been temporarily stunned after tumbling through the turbines.
“We call them floaters,” Mitchell says. “All the eagles have to do is pick them up out of the water.”
Sounds simple, but Pennsylvania-based photographer Dan Gomola has witnessed as many as nine eagles fighting over a single fish.
“That’s what you’re hoping to see — when the eagles get into a skirmish in the air, those are the coolest photographs,” he says. “People think of bald eagles as such noble birds, but they are thieves.”
The Conowingo Dam, located about a 90-minute drive from D.C., is well known among bird-watchers and photographers as the best place east of the Mississippi River to see bald eagles, Gomola says. Eagles that nest in more northerly places begin congregating at the dam in late October as their summer fishing territories freeze over, and their numbers increase steadily through January, when they begin to return north to nest, says Nicholas Lund, a birder on the DC Audubon Society’s board of directors.
“In the winter, eagles aren’t territorial because they aren’t defending any nests,” Lund says. “They are just out for themselves, so wherever there’s a lot of food, you can get these big aggregations that you’d never see in the summer.”
Spotting one eagle is pretty awesome, but seeing a hundred is spectacular, Lund adds.
“They are such an impressive bird,” he says. “They have huge talons, they have huge beaks, and that strong, angry brow. Finding so many in one place is a moving, near miraculous experience.”
The great number of birds brings in a huge number of wildlife photographers, who wake up before dawn to stake out the best spots on the walkway overlooking the river. Even when it gets crowded, the atmosphere stays collegial, with professional photographers often giving advice to the amateurs during the lulls between feeding frenzies, Gomola says.
“I think one of the neatest things is that you meet all these people from all over the world, and you all have this mutual interest you want to talk about,” Gomola says.
Many people show up with two cameras: one set up on a tripod with a long lens, and another handheld camera for close-up shots, Mitchell says.
“The eagles like to hang out on the rocks on the far side of the river, but they will come in and grab a fish closer to the fishing dock area, and then they land in trees behind you to eat the fish,” she says.
You don’t need professional equipment to capture the moment, Gomola adds.
“The eagle will be 30 yards away from you eating his fish, so even a point-and-shoot camera can get a good photo,” he says.
After about 4 p.m., the daylight gets too dim for high-speed photography, Mitchell says, so that’s a good time to trade your camera for binoculars and just take in the scene. The setting sun bathes the valley in golden light, and the eagles talk among themselves.
“A lot of people think eagles screech, but the sound they make is more like a giggle. It’s cuter than anything,” Mitchell says.
Pro tips for your trip to Conowingo Dam
- Wake up early. Arrive before dawn to stake out a spot along the overlook. The parking lot at nearby Fisherman’s Park opens an hour before sunrise and stays open an hour after sunset.
- Come equipped. Bring binoculars and a camera, ideally one with a long lens or a solid optical zoom.
- You’ll also want to pack extra batteries for your camera.
- Pack food and water. There are restrooms and picnic tables near the overlook, but no vending machines.
- Be prepared to wait. The dam releases water a few times a day, depending on the river level and power demand, which means there are often long lulls between feeding frenzies. You can call the Conowingo Dam info line (888-457-4076) after 5 p.m. for the next day’s operating schedule, but the times frequently change.
- Don’t hassle the wildlife. It’s hard not to get excited when an eagle flies near you, but try to keep your voice down or you might scare it away.
Conowingo Dam’s Fisherman’s Park, 2569 Shures Landing Road, Darlington, Md.
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