CONOWINGO — Fisherman’s Park at the Conowingo Dam has quietly become the hottest spot East of the Mississippi River to view the national bird of the United States — the bald eagle.
On most mornings in late autumn, the parking lot at the end of Shuresville Road is packed, as hundreds of photographers and bird-enthusiasts line the banks of the Susquehanna River on the Harford County side hoping to view the majestic birds of prey.
By Thanksgiving, the trees above the parking lot can be teeming with eagles.
Birders have clocked more than 300 in the area at one time. The dam’s stanchions and the two pylon towers on a small island in the river are favorite hangouts of the stoic hunters.
As many photographers and birders as eagles may be in the area, with clusters of dozens searching for the best angle and the best shot.
Many bald eagles call the area home, and it’s not unusual to see them in several areas on and near the river. But the Conowingo Dam area at the lower Susquehanna River finds a concentration like nowhere else for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles.
Eagles migrating from the northern parts of North America make the dam home for some time, and dozens of them can be seen hunting for fish in the early mornings.
Photographers and birders will routinely arise hours before dawn to stake their claim in the parking lot and in other areas that are favorable to birdwatching.
“I’ve been wanting to come here since I was 16. I am an avid birder,” said 21-year-old Emily Case of Reading, Pa. last week at the dam.
“I’m studying biology now, and I want to be an ornithologist.”
Case said she had not seen the amount of bald eagles in one place before.
“It’s very impressive,” she added. “It kind of sums up everything that I want to do.”
Case previously worked at a wildlife rehabilitation center, and learned about and worked with many eagles there.
“It’s very cool to see this many eagles in the wild and thriving,” she said.
Birders and photographers congregate in three main areas on the Susquehanna River to capture and observe the national bird.
The “fishing pier” area has a gathering spot where hoards of photographers clamor to capture the eagles, while the “fence line” area provides easier access to parked vehicles and a different vantage point. The boat launch area provides an opportunity to see the birds in motion at a different sightline level. It is known for being the ideal spot in certain light — as the high contrast of the coloring of the bird can be problematic to photograph, especially for amateurs.
Teresa Henriksen, of Long Island, N.Y., came to take pictures of the birds. The event is her first time watching eagles at the Conowingo Dam.
“I’m not a local,” she said.
Henriksen said she heard about the sighting opportunity through fellow photographers, and that she’d never seen this many eagles in one place.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “It makes me crazy. I don’t know which one to aim the camera at.”
Phillip Mitchell and Alicia Ambers, of Alexandria, Va., heard about the eagles through word of mouth, and were blown away by the sight.
“Local people in Virginia just kept talking about it,” Ambers said. “We’ve seen them driving into work into D.C. over the bridges all the time, but not this quantity of them, concentration-wise.”
What seems like a serene spot on the river can be bursting with activity and indeed competition, as the birds of prey stake their claim to their spots. It is a much different scene than the lone soaring of a bird along a highway.
“Here, you know, they’re fighting,” Mitchell said. “They’re fighting over the fish so it’s much more active. It’s not just one bird flying out and coming back. It’s my first year. Here we’ve seen about four or five in one frame.”