Bald Eagles at Conowingo Dam
Some time ago at a used bookstore in Silver Spring I discovered Seasonal Guide to the Natural Year. It’s a month-by-month guide to seasonal events in nature offering tips on how, when, and where to observe some breathtaking scenes. I’ve relied on it to point me toward new and exciting experiences a number of times, and this year I’m going to choose one event per month to talk about here.
It wasn’t long after I bought the book that I put it to good use. Its first entry for January is about viewing bald eagles at Conowingo Dam (where US Route 1 crosses the Susquehanna River). At the time I’d only seen a handful in my life, and the opportunity to see several at once was too good to pass up. I thought maybe we’d get the chance to see four or five, a treat well worth the ninety minute drive. We arrived and saw a promising number of folks with fancy cameras, binoculars, and spotter’s scopes, but at first all I saw was a few black vultures and a ton of gulls. Given a few minutes to adjust to the landscape, though, we started seeing them. At first we saw one in a tree right in front of us, and then a couple more soaring overhead, and gradually more and more until we realized there were dozens all around. One dove into the river and returned to a tree right next to where we were standing to devour its prize.
This congregation of eagles happens predictably at Conowingo Dam every winter. As ponds, lakes, and streams in the region freeze the Susquehanna remains one of a few ready food sources in the region. As a bonus for the eagles (and gulls, cormorants, ducks, and vultures) the dam stuns fish every time its flood gates are opened. The birds have learned that the sluice alarm is a dinner bell for them. Even in relatively warm winters they appear in great numbers knowing that a feast awaits.
Laurel and I have made this an annual pilgrimage since that first time, and only once have we come home disappointed. That year we were forced by weather to wait until February, by which time the activity had tapered off. The area around the dam is almost always decent for birding in general, but the eagles thin out between February and October. I was inspired to go early (December instead of January) this year because I had heard there was an “official” count of over 250 bald eagles in a single day earlier that month. I’m not an experienced bird counter, but when we visited on 12/23 I came up with a conservative count of 67 bald eagles, not to mention at least 150 black vultures, hundreds of gulls, a dozen or so geese, a pair of cormorants, and a small flock of mallards. In past trips we have seen golden eagles as well as many species of “backyard birds” in the woods downstream of the dam. The highlight of those was a pair of pileated woodpeckers a couple years ago; always a treat unto themselves.
Perhaps the most surprising thing I learned about bald eagles is what they sound like. We’re enculturated to believe they possess a primal scream, unleashed with fury as they dive upon their prey. The Colbert Report, for example, uses the call of a red-tailed hawk for its snarkily patriotic intro. However, in reality they sound more like some kind of gull or blackbird with a sort of high-pitched chortle. I lack adequate onomatopoeic skills to describe it, so I’ll just recommend you listen.
Another thing that can be confusing at first is that bald eagles don’t develop the distinctive white heads until their fourth or fifth year, and that males and females share the feature. Juvenile bald eagles can be difficult to distinguish from golden eagles for this reason, but after a few trips to Conowingo it’s become much easier for me.
I don’t think I have quite the patriotic reverence for bald eagles that some of my countrymen seem to, but I am awestruck by the site of even one. To see them in the kind of numbers one might expect of robins or starlings and watch them fish is an unforgettable experience. I can’t recommend a winter trip to the Conowingo Dam highly enough. I’ll refer you to another WordPress blog I came across for a great write-up of how best to enjoy a great day of eagle watching.