The best place to see eagles on the East Coast is not at a wildlife refuge, not in the wilderness of a forest or the remoteness of a rural corner.
The best place to see eagles is next to the Conowingo Dam, an enormous, 53-gate structure spanning the Susquehanna River about 5 miles below the Pennsylvania border.
Here, on the shores of a fisherman’s park that Exelon Corp. built in 2009 for birders and fishermen, our national symbol is everywhere. There’s one perched on an electrical tower. Another soars through the air, talons clinging to a fish. Two more are doing a mating dance, talons entwined until just before they hit the river’s surface. And two more are fighting over a piece of fish that the dam’s generator has conveniently turned into easy pickings.
What the dam lacks in atmosphere, it makes up for in quantity. From Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, more than 150 eagles flock to Conowingo.
Sometimes, the photographers nearly outnumber the birds. Dozens of them, dressed in layered hunting jackets and outfitted with long lenses and binoculars, stand along the pier looking for eagles. A mix of professional photographers and hobbyists, they will often call out when they spot and eagle. “Overhead,” one will yell. Or, “that’s immature,” when they see a young eagle.
It’s not hard to spot a bird at the dam — on a visit last fall, the pier was thick with gulls, turkey vultures and eagles. But it is tricky to spot an eagle, identify it correctly, make a picture of it in action and have that picture be something evocative of these majestic creatures.
Dave Lychenheim has been working on that pursuit since 2009, when he and his wife returned from a trip to South Africa where he photographed lots of wildlife. While photographing birds near his home in Howard County, Lychenheim met John Maloney, a retired butcher who was both an avid birder and a photographer. Maloney taught Lychenheim some basic tenets of photographing birds. Then Maloney took him to Conowingo.
Lychenheim has traveled the world, worked as a satellite engineer for the Hubble telescope and sailed with Jacques Cousteau as a radio officer. But Conowingo was something new.
“I’d never seen a bald eagle before, ever,” Lychenheim said. “To see them fly was really something spectacular.”
Lychenheim became hooked. He learned how to spot female eagles — they’re about 30 percent larger than the males. He learned how to spot immature eagles — they do not yet have the white head — and how to differentiate immature eagles from the black turkey vultures. (The clue is the vulture’s wingspan, which is more like a V).
He met photographers from as far away as Quebec, and even found a pizza place (Conowingo Pizza) that delivers to the eagle-viewing platform.
Two years ago, Lychenheim started the Facebook page, Conowingo Bald Eagles. Part of his mission was to spread the word about this local treasure — a move not entirely welcomed by some of the Conowingo and Darlington residents who wanted to keep the dam a secret. Part of Lychenheim’s plan was to showcase his own beautiful photography, which is for sale. But a big motivation was to help photographers like Francis LePine, a Quebecois who drove 12 hours to the dam last December only to find very few eagles. Lychenheim visits the dam two or three times a week in season, posts updates on the number of eagles and encourages other photographers to keep in touch with him and do the same.
LePine, a professional nature photographer based outside Montreal, did not know about the Facebook page. He needed some eagle photos for his portfolio and heard Conowingo was a good place to come. He was disappointed: The eagle population had dropped off after Dec. 1, 2013 when we caught up with LePine. Perhaps it was not cold enough up north to force them down to Conowingo. LePine promised to check the page next time.
Another Quebecois recently wrote to Lychenheim asking where he could park his helicopter. Fortunately, the Harford County airport is just five miles away.
Eagles are in their prime from Thanksgiving until about New Year’s Day, but summer is also a wonderful time at the dam, Lychenheim said. Several eagles live there year-round, though they are harder to spot when the trees are in bloom.
The best part of watching the eagles is when they fight over a fish. Lychenheim even has a photo where the eagles have torn the fish in half. Maloney likes to watch a pair of peregrine falcons, who will occasionally antagonize the eagles. The trees on the other side of the dam are filled with great blue herons, and they occasionally swoop in for a snack as well. And while shots of white gulls aren’t likely to win a photo prize, they’re especially pretty against a perfect blue sky.
For best results at Conowingo, Lychenheim advises, photographers should consider investing in a long lens. But perhaps more important is patience.
“A lot of people go to the dam, they go for an hour, and they don’t see anything,” he said. “I go the next day and I see 100 pairs. This is not Disney World, where you press a button and they do your act for you. Part of birding is patience.”
To spot the eagles, you have to find the dam first
Conowingo Dam, despite its enormity, is not the easiest place to find. There are no signs on the way to the viewing platform. The fisherman’s park is open from one hour before sunrise to an hour after sunset. There is plenty of parking and portable bathrooms.
To get there: From Baltimore and points south, take Interstate 95 north to the Havre De Grace exit. Make a left (west) on MD Route 155, and then a right on MD Route 161 through Darlington. After about 5 miles, turn right on Old Quaker Road then right on Shuresville Road. There is a split; stay to the left, on Shuresville (not Stafford). After about two miles, make a right onto Shuresville Landing and it will take you to the dam. It is about 50 miles from Baltimore.
From the north, take U.S. Route 1, cross the dam, and make a left onto Shuresville Road. Go about 0.7 miles and then make a sharp left onto Shures Landing.
The official address is 569 Shures Landing Road, Darlington, MD 21034.