Thanksgiving weekend was supposed to host the first annual “Wildlife South” fall outing at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge but a lady named Sandy put a damper into it. However, a few of us decided to meet and greet anyway with a beginning at the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in the morning then with an hour and a half commute around lunch, finish the day at Maryland’s Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River to photograph the yearly gathering of Eagles who draw huge crowds of photographers, tourist and birders from the area and surrounding states. The “Dam Eagles” have become a pilgrimage for many.
Wildlife South is an online Nature and Travel magazine dedicated to the Mid Atlantic, Southeastern and South central United States for whom I am a writer and photojournalist covering the Mid Atlantic and Texas. I also co-moderate the photography forums along with Scott McWatty from South Carolina.
The morning at Bombay Hook was hampered by dense fog until we left for Conowingo so Photography was pretty much out of the question but I was joined by Steve Keller and Mark Shartle from Pennsylvania and Fred Hurteau from North Carolina. Another Wildlife South member, Randy Lawson was to meet us at Conowingo in the early afternoon. The lack of photography opportunities was not a misfortune since we had ample time to chat and enjoy the Great Horned Owl show shortly before sunrise in a nearby dead tree along the Raymond pool levee. We did hear the snow geese depart at sunrise but didn’t get a visual due to the lack of visibility from the fog. Bombay Hook was alive with migrants and winter residents and we did enjoy a bit of non photographic birding during our few hours there.
Arriving at Conowingo around 1 pm I ran into friend and fellow photographer Eric Gerber who suggested the best shooting would be from the rocks just below the new Fisherman’s deck near the base of the dam. The power-plant was only running one generator and the birds would congregate for the best fishing photography in that area. So we gathered our gear and made our way from the parking area to this location and as luck would have it, Randy Lawson had already secured a spot. The action was a bit slow overall but we all had a wonderful time and ample photographic opportunities on the “White-headed Buzzards” that blessed our viewfinders.
Even from a non-photographic viewpoint the Eagles are amazing to observe and can be enjoyed by all. The fishing action is fun but the best entertainment is watching the juveniles try to steal the “catch of the day” from adults proficient at fishing. They can get downright corny and very aggressive to the point of hilarity. It’s truly nature at it’s light-hearted finest for the onlooker but serious business for the bird with the fish. I’ve witnessed quite a few talons hooked together along with a spiraling dive into the drink for all concerned! The year before last I watched one bird float lifeless with the current for a good distance but then crawl up on an island shoreline to fully recuperate and fly back to the distant shoreline and join his brethren. There were no “spills and chills” on this trip but plenty of mid-air dog fights over “Charlie Tuna”. I bet the cormorants fishing the discharge were thinking they’d be glad when these guys go build a nest somewhere and leave them to the river and peace.
The peak of the action will continue into mid December and finally winding down near the beginning of the New Year. So if you have the chance make Conowingo a part of your “must visit” list….
Other birding and photography opportunities at the dam included a Pileated woodpecker frolicking in the trees just above the parking area along with a “goofy” group of Black Vultures gathered along the woods edge on the ground near the deck parking lot foraging for who knows what in the dirt. I stood about ten feet from them photographing their behavior and they could care less.
If you would like to see more images from me and the others visit our thread in the Birds Forum at Wildlife South.