“Alexa, set my alarm for 1200 am.” 

I settled into bed after dinner, around 6 pm. I worked all day, so I was a bit tired. I could sleep if I wanted to, but anticipation and adrenalin was coursing through my veins. The last time I felt this way was the night before climbing Mt. Saint Helens for the first time. 

I researched for the last three weeks on where to stand, how to get there, and what to expect during the course of the day as I watched the weather and read visitor reports on the Facebook pages I followed. For years I put off going there, but this is 2020 and nothing normal is to be expected. I figured the time to go was now, and I was down to Alexa waking me up in six hours. 

Falling asleep was not easy. I tossed and turned thinking about what my day might be like. I was so excited to finally go. 

Those 6 hours went by quickly, and I think I was awake for most of them. But, now it was time to get up, get dressed and go. I was headed to Conowingo Dam in Harford County, Maryland. 

Why I never went before this was beyond me. I guess I was guilty of the I’ll-do-it-next-year syndrome. It just sounded so crowded and busy that it didn’t sound fun. This year, though, I had to go. I had to check it out. 

Conowingo Dam is a hydroelectric power station on the Susquehanna River. During the months of November and December the year round population of bald eagles increases dramatically at the dam as migrating eagles stop by to take a pitstop and refuel. And with that, photographers around the world join in the fun. So many come that the main parking lot often fills not long after the 5 am opening. In years past they had an overflow parking lot with buses shuttling photographers back and forth. But, this is 2020 and we are in a pandemic. So, no overflow parking and no buses… therefore, you must get there early. 

I already had the car packed with warm clothes and food. The only thing that remained to put in was my camera gear. I was going to be shooting mainly with my Canon R5 and 600 f/4 coupled with my 1.4x teleconverter to give my 840mm of shooting pleasure. I had extra batteries and memory cards and even brought my Canon 5Dsr and my trusty 100-400mm lens just in case I needed another camera. I am not really a birder, and I was concerned about tracking the eagles etc. All I wanted to do on this trip was feel it out, see what worked and what didn’t. Mike, a good friend of mine, was also meeting me there which was extremely helpful since he had been there many times in the past. 

So, now it was up to me to just get there in enough time to get a parking space. My goal was to wake up at midnight and leave at 1 am for the 3 hour drive north, but I was on the road by 1230. This time of year rutting deer are plentiful, so I took my time driving coming across many instances of deer crossing the highways. 

As I turned onto the narrow and winding Shures Landing Road leading to the park at the dam, I came to the gatehouse which I expected. At 330 in the morning I was the first one there, but I was so concentrated watching where I was going I did not see the ‘no parking’ signs along the road. At 345 more cars pulled in behind me, but we all had to move because we were not allowed to park on the road. I wasn’t thinking, but the employees working at the Conowingo Hydroelectric Generating Station use the same entrance to get in and out of work as those using the park. It was no big deal, I just found a place to park along the road before the ‘no parking’ signs and instead of being the first in, I was maybe the 8th or 9th when they opened the gates. All I wanted was a parking space, even if it was the last one. But, now I know for future visits as to what to do if I get there super early again. 

My friend Mike wasn’t far behind me, and he previously told me to get my tripod set up as soon as I got in. And, he was right. As soon as everyone parked it was a mad rush to ‘your spot’ in order to set your tripod up and claim your space. I ended up on the rocks along the water right where I wanted to be. I was around maybe 8 or 10 others, but we were all well over 6 feet apart. All of us had masks, but once we were far enough apart and since we were outside we were able to relax a bit. 

And now the wait began. It was only roughly 530 am, and we still had over an hour of waiting on the sunlight. But, it went fast. I had this massive dam in front of me to the left and an island to my right. I could hear eagles, cormorants and herons in the distance. Folks filled in one after another from all over the world. I heard one fella say he was from Pittsburgh, another from Hershey more from New York and New Jersey. I saw camera bags with ‘carry-on’ tags. Photographers were talking cameras and eagles as some folks near me were obviously frequent visitors that have been here many times over. I thought I must have picked a good spot to stand if they are also standing nearby. Hundreds of photographers were here, but it was quiet and respectful. Everyone was just waiting for the show to begin and to take home their memory card treasures.

Soon the light turned bright and the eagles started to wake up. On the far side of the Susquehanna River I took one image that had 10 eagles in it. I really wasn’t sure quite what to expect, though. I wasn’t sure if 840mm would be too much - the average lens looked to be maybe the 500mm lens. I did see several 600’s and a couple 800’s, but I saw many smaller lenses, too. I ended up staying at 840mm and am glad I did. The eagles were flying a bit farther away than I thought they would be, but that could change on any given day, hour or minute. 

As I watched I saw a few things I read about during my research to the dam. As water flows through the gates to power the turbines, the churning dazes the fish. The eagles and cormorants would then pluck the fish out of the water. But, this is where it got interesting… The eagles would then follow a procedure on their way to the trees to eat. First, they would look underneath themselves and rearrange the fish in their talons. Next, they would look around for other eagles as they sped off hoping not to be chased and challenged as they made their getaway to the trees to enjoy their catch. It was quite amazing to see and photograph. Sometimes this would take place far away, and other times it was much closer and easier to capture on camera. 

I just couldn’t get enough of watching the eagles fishing. It was how they fished that got me. When they saw their target they would turn, almost corkscrew turn in the sky and then just almost fall straight down adjusting their wings and tail during their controlled glide down to the water. At the last second they would pull up, kind of like a parachutist does, raising their feet as their momentum carried them forward before lunging their talons into the fish. Then, with one or two powerful wing flaps, they were up and off again. It was quite amazing, and it never got old.  

I stood on the rocks with my tripod from just after 5 that morning until I left at 230 pm. Some things I learned were… take my food with me to the rocks. I had nothing to eat since I had left the house at 1230 am. I was definitely getting hungry and a ‘hangry’ headache. Second, take a bathroom break, at least once. That’s right, no bathroom breaks either until I left. I didn’t want to miss any action. Third, don’t be scared to move around a bit. On the day I was there, the eagles seemed to be hanging closer to the dam. Most times, from what others were saying, they seem to fly closer to where we were set up on the rocks, but you just never know where they will be flying so don’t be scared to follow the action. And lastly, be aware of the ever changing lighting conditions at the dam. I was there on a sunny day. The sun rises downriver, and then it moves around to your back. There are hills and trees behind you as you shoot, so the lighting constantly is changing. Also, when the eagles are flying high the lighting is much different than down on the water. The sun gets blocked by the trees by mid afternoon which is one reason I left around 230 pm. 

I had such a good time at Conowingo, even with the crazy crowds. Actually, the crowds never bothered me or got in my way. My friend Mike said it would get in my blood, and it certainly has. This will absolutely not be my last trip to Conowingo, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why I waited so long to finally go. 

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

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