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Dan Jordan’s Wild World: Bald Eagles of the Susquehanna

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By Dan Jordan, Jordan Photography

This week’s edition of Dan Jordan’s Wild World takes a bit of a different path.  Those of you who know me, know that I photograph bald eagles. A lot!  Some call me the eagle whisperer.  I have published a series of articles called the Eagle Whisperer. I study bald eagles and log eagle nest sites throughout central and WNY as well as NWPA.

Each year, I make a trek to Maryland in early winter to photograph the throngs of eagles that spend the cold months fishing at the Conowingo Dam hydroelectric generation station on the Susquehanna River.  Since I just returned from my 2022 trip, I thought that I would share some stories and some of the thousands of photos that I captured.  (Close to 20,000 this year)

I traveled to Maryland with a fellow photographer, both of us had made many trips to the dam before.  We’ve seen awesome years and not-so-great years for eagle numbers, so there was some anticipation to find out how many eagles and how much fishing by the eagles there would be.

Cold house or frozen pipes? Call Tim Shea !

I was immediately presented with an eagle dogfight directly overhead from my position along the river.  Any eagle who successfully catches a fish must almost immediately fend off other eagles that wish to steal a meal.  As you can see in the photo below, these battles are serious.

What a great start to a three-day visit, I thought.

The dam at Conowingo is an electric generation facility.  There is always a certain amount of water which flows through the dam but at certain times, when they turn on the generators, a lot of water rushes out and the level of the river rises rapidly.  Thankfully, sirens announce the events, so that fishermen and photographers can seek higher ground.  The good news for the eagles is that when they generate, a lot of fish get stunned as they pass through the generators and either float up to the surface or have dulled senses.  This provides a smorgasbord for the eagles, whose keep vision can spot the temporarily disabled fish from far away.

The generators did not run at all during this trip, but in the past, when the sirens sounded, the eagles sensed the oncoming feast and collected closer to the river.

Fisherman’s Park resides on the west side of the Susquehanna River at the base of the dam.  During the winter months, it is not uncommon to see hundreds of photographers with ultra-expensive equipment standing shoulder to shoulder for a couple of hundred yards downstream.  Among the photogs, you will see fishermen, casting lines into the current.

The photo below shows another eagle aerial battle plus the beautiful view across the river from Fisherman’s Park.  The landscape almost has a prehistoric feel.  Notice in the foreground, the great blue heron.  Herons and eagles coexist at the dam and the herons don’t pay much attention to all the eagle goings on.

This year was a good year for eagle numbers.  I estimate that there were about 100 or more eagles at the dam each day at any given time.  That’s right, 100 eagles in view at any time.  There is a cement wall which extends out from the dam itself into the river and there were as many as 26 eagles sitting on the wall at times.  Surprisingly, the eagles all get along really well (not normal in their home territories) until one catches a fish, then it’s mayhem.

There are a higher number of subadult and juvenile eagles than adults each year.  This does not match the population in North America.  With a long lifespan and maturity at 4 years old, there would naturally be more adults than subadults and juveniles combined.  My theory is that since the two younger groups have not paired up, they do not have a “home territory” yet and are freer to head south earlier and more often than the mature eagles. Since subadults are my favorites to photograph, I had a “field day” with the plethora of them on hand.

The below photo shows one of the subadult eagles flying by my position.  It had a fish safely tucked away under its tail in an attempt to avoid detection.  As far as I know, it was successful.

The next photo shows an adult eagle flying over the photographers, looking curiously at all that expensive equipment.

And the next is another adult flying overhead, perhaps 50 feet above us clutching a nice fish.

The next photo was taken from a long distance away, perhaps 125 yards.  It shows two eagles holding the same fish and attempting to fly off with it.  This photo is part of an interesting story.  These two ended up dropping the fish.  A third eagle picked it up and was immediately challenged by these two.  The fish was dropped again and then for a third time.  An opportunistic eagle which had been sitting on the wall watching this unfold, then scooped it up and flew off with it.  You may feel sorry for the eagle who originally caught the fish, but the real loser in this drama was the fish!

The next photo shows an adult eagle about to nab a fish.

And the next is the same eagle flying off with the catch.

This next photo shows a juvenile eagle with a fish.  After eagles catch a fish, they look back at it to make sure they have it in both feet, so they can tuck it up under their tails.

That’s a tiny fish, a crappie I believe.  It didn’t make much of a meal for this eagle.  Two more photos to share, but I could share a thousand and not run short of new things to show.

This next photo has been a big hit on my Facebook page.  It shows an adult eagle flying over me with a small fish.  It had just flown over to the west but was met with resistance (other eagles), so it detoured back over our position to escape the would-be thieves.

The last photo has received rave reviews from members of the Conowingo Eagles Facebook group.  It shows an eagle perched above the parking lot.  As we were leaving for home, I spotted this eagle, and I knew that this pose warranted unpacking all my equipment to “get the shot”.  The pastel colors of the sky added a sense of serenity to this eagle’s pose.

Well, that’s it for another edition of Dan Jordan’s Wild World.  I hope you enjoyed the photos and the vicarious visit to Conowingo Dam (2022 edition).

I offer bald eagle presentations (for a small fee) to schools, church groups, retirement homes, bird clubs, photography clubs, you name it.  The presentation is a Power Point, and it morphs weekly as I add to my immense collection of eagle photos.  After this trip, I am up to almost 280,000 eagle photos, all since 2016.  Most are from WNY, but you’d not know that from this article. 

Coming soon an edition showcasing local eagles.

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