Photographing Bald Eagles at the Conowingo Dam

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Once you fall for bird photography, the Conowingo Dam in Maryland beckons. The hydroelectric dam on the Susquehanna River is known to attract dozens of bald eagles in the fall. In their wake, an equal number of photographers and long, fast teles show up for an annual ritual of fishing, photographing and freezing.

The eagles, opportunists that they are, come for the fast food delivered to them courtesy of the Exelon Power Corporation which operates the dam several times a day, in the process stunning the fish that make the trip through the generators and making them easy prey for the big birds.

Like few other places, this predictable ritual allows photographers multiple spray-and-pray runs at fishing eagles and thus increases the chance for the money shot. One hour at Conowingo can deliver more payback than many freezing hours along the Hudson in mid-winter, as I can attest based on personal experience.

The season starts at the end of October and runs through the beginning of December, although there are always some eagles around. The height of the hunt is apparently around the Thanksgiving holiday. On weekends, the crowds of photographers, fishermen and onlookers do get large and parking space limited, but weekdays are manageable.

I was there at the end of October for two days and will return later this week for three days. I will write a detailed guide based on my experiences and talks with local shooters who have photographed here for years. For now, a few quick impressions and images.

Million-Dollar Row

There are more large telelenses along the river here than at a pro game and some call the lineup of photographers the ‘million-dollar row,’ based on the value of all that top gear.

I’m not sure how far the eagles fly to reach the dam, but the photographers do fly in from far away. I met one photographer who was visiting for about a week from California and another one who came from Bangkok, Thailand, by way of Banf, Canada. Then there are the lucky ones who live close by and can ‘do’ the dam on their lunch break or before heading into work.

Going in October is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, the eagles are not as abundant as in November, so there is less action. On the other hand, the leaves are still on the trees and showing their fall colors, making for a better background than bare trees.

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This year, the weather is still relatively warm, so standing for hours at the dam isn’t – yet – as cold as it will become once the temperatures get into the normal range for this time of the season.

Technique, Or Not

I’m not going to go into technique yet. I’m still learning bird photography and I’m not the right person to tell others how to shoot. Moreover, the tips from people on the web and in person are all over the board.

Some say you should shoot in manual mode and change your settings as the light changes. Some say you’re crazy to use manual mode and should use aperture priority mode. Others will swear by shutter speed priority mode.

The one thing all will have in common is that they will have to deal with the challenge of the white heads and tails of the mature eagles, which get blown out if you don’t somehow compensate for them. Whether you do that using manual mode or using exposure compensation, that’s up to you.

At the same time, of course, you do need to keep your shutter speed high, preferably at least at 1/1600s or higher. This might mean that you need to use high ISOs, which some will find acceptable while others will leave when the light dims because the noise at the higher ISOs becomes a hindrance for them. Again, that’s up to you.

The same discussion reigns over autofocus modes. I’m not sure about Nikon’s AF functions, but the settings on the top Canon DSLRs are so extensive that nobody seems to agree on what’s the best. I’m still figuring it out myself, having come no further than identifying the main challenges to the AF system at Conowingo.

Generally, for birds in flight against the clear sky, you can use all AF points and let the camera find the bird. For birds flying in front of a background or fishing in the river, most use the center point or center points and try to track the bird. This requires practice and as the bird gets further away and thus smaller in the frame, the camera might switch focus to another area. If the water is choppy, there’s also a chance the AF will jump from the bird to the water as the eagle swoops down.

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Reach and More Reach

I shot about 3,000 images during a two-day visit (really one afternoon and one morning into early afternoon) and I’m still trying to figure out what the best settings are for my cameras and what I need to improve about my own technique.

What’s clear, though, is that 99% of the time you need reach. I did bring two cameras, two lenses and two teleconverters: the Canon 1D X and 7D Mark II, the Canon 500mm f/4 IS II and 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II and the 1.4x III and 2x III converters. The 500mm was on an Induro tripod with gimbal head while the shorter zoom was hanging on a Blackrapid strap or lying somewhere close to me.

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I mostly used the 100-400mm when an eagle flew toward me to the trees behind the parking lot or for environmental shots. It’s important to have that shorter option available, since the action might sometimes be close.

Still, 99% of the time the action is far away, so far that I mostly used the 7D II with its 1.6 crop factor plus the 500mm lens and the 1.4x converter, giving me 1120mm. A few times, I used the 2x converter, giving me 1600mm.

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What I used depended mostly on where I stood.

Shoot Locations

In the early morning, many prefer the boat ramp, a small space that quickly fills up. This allows you to shoot eagles flying over the river between the shore and an island. As the sun rises, the light falls beautifully over the birds. The river is relatively narrow here, so I prefered the 1D X with the 500mm and the 1.4x converter on this spot.

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As you move closer to the dam, you can line up along the fence of the parking lot and still shoot in the relatively narrow space between the shore and the island. You can get by with a short setup here, meaning at least 400mm, preferably a little longer. The adventurous can climb down the rocks and get a lower view of the river here.

Apparently, when the dam is running water at full force, this is where the fish float on the water, stunned by what just happened to them and the eagles do their fishing here.

When the dam is not running or not running at full force, the area closer to the dam will provide more action. Here you can shoot from a small beach if the dam isn’t running, or from a deck alongside dozens of other photographers.

The river is much wider here and you need all the reach you can afford, and then some. I exclusively used the 7D II with the 500mm and the 1.4x when I shot in this area, with the 1D X and 100-400mm reserved for flight shots.

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I did wish Canon made a crop sensor camera with the speed and buffer of the 1D X. The 7D II is a great camera for bird photography, but shooting RAW the buffer fills up quicker than the one on the 1D X and you need to make sure you have space left for the critical moment that the eagle catches the fish. With the 1D X, you can just blast away.

Challenges

While Conowingo is a great location, there are a few challenges specific to it. The first one is that it’s in a valley, so the light disappears relatively early. Driving back from it because the scene had come too dark, I found myself in sun-drenched hills. At the dam, the lights lasts longest on the far shores, visible from the observation deck, but also requiring longer lenses.

The second one is the presence of the dam and its paraphernalia, which is kind of a given, but a challenge nonetheless. Your bird might fly or fish in front of the dam, fly through the power wires throwing off your AF or fly by the towers lining the river. The multitude of other birds can be a bonus, but can also mess with your AF tracking.

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Finally, a bit about the schedule. Word is that the power company generally runs the dam twice a day, one time in the morning and one time in the afternoon. A hot line (1-888-457-4076) provides the info for the day and is updated a 5 PM for the next day.

The problem is that the information is generally wrong. I’m planning to talk with the company as I work on my guide, but from my brief experience so far I can only advise to ignore the hotline.

On my first day, the dam wasn’t supposed to run until after dark. When I arrived early in the afternoon, it turned out they had started running it around 11 AM, most likely to lower the water level behind the dam after a day of heavy rains. The water ran thoughout my time there, until the sun disappeared behind the trees around 5.30 PM.

The second day, the hotline said they would start up around 3 PM. They generally run it at low levels, but many photographers left for lunch or went home as it was relatively quiet. I was planning to leave around 1 PM for my drive back. Then, as I was about to pack up, the sirens sounded and the hazard lights came on, warning us to leave the low-lying beach.

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A few minutes later, water spewed out in force, quickly flooding the area where we had been standing and delivering an hour of eagle lunch activity in its wake.

Meanwhile, a lot of photographers who had just left were having their own lunch elsewhere.

Comments

  1. Your blog may make it the 3mill row. A problem you forgot to mention was a blog like this ruins it for the serious photographer and in my opinion, every Tom, Dick and Louise will come to check it out. I hope you are ready to get to the river early, maybe 5:00 am so you can get a parking space.

    • I think you overestimate the reach of my blog, but even then, it’s a semi-public place and everyone does have the right to go there.

      • What Ted seems to be forget is at one point he was a Tom, Dick, or Louise. I am newer to photography and live a half hour from the dam. I finally went on December 2nd. It was rainy and cloudy. I waited for a day that I knew wouldn’t be crowded. There was a guy there from China and a few others. I barely took any keepers from 600-700 images. I know that the more I go, hopefully the images will get better. I, along with every other amateur, has as much right to be there as Ted. I highly doubt that the first time he went there, he took stunning images, but maybe he’s a natural

  2. Have to agree with Ted . This is a public place but let people find out on there own . Been going there for years but things have changed a lot and not for the better . To much Media and this type of publicity . Ah well seems that way every where I thought I had a little secret !

    • Thank you for thinking that my humble blog will attract new visitors. I doubt it.

      For what it’s worth, I heard about the dam from other photographers first and not from a web search.

    • Will sums up my thoughts. Yes, everyone has the right to be there as you mention but, next time, tell a friend, a neighbor, or a casual acquaintance in a PM or a letter and swear them to secrecy. No posting the location on the internet as you did on a very popular web site.

      • While I understand your concern, it’s a bit as if you want to be the last guy in and block everybody else. I’m sure you heard somewhere about the dam as well when it first became known to you. It’s not like you happened to stumble upon it, I guess.

        A quick search shows that this location has featured regularly on FredMiranda.com. TheDigitalPicture.com has written about it as well, when testing long lenses. Media have often written about the eagles at the dam. Those people I met who flew in from California and Thailand are also proof that the dam is no secret in the world of bird photography.

        Finally, this Saturday the power company itself promotes the dam with its annual eagle event. I’m sure they have more reach than this site.

        • John:

          I hope this is my last reply to you on this subject.

          The power company has Eagle Day because of a self serving person who proposed the event to the executives of the power company. Great PR for the power company, great PR for the Facebook guy who has 87,000 followers.

          If you are interested, you might want to sign up for photography lessons the facebook guy conducts at the location in question for the advanced photographer.

          Ted

          • Just one correction: the FB page at this point has 11,021 likes, not 87,000. I’ve met Dave at the dam, I hope to meet you there one day and I really have no beef with anyone.

  3. canon shooter says:

    I like the fact that you have found a great place to photograph eagles, and that you are kind enough to share your new spot with others.

    Sharing the joys of life with others is what makes them so joyful. When ever I find a place that I enjoy photographing I tell anyone that seems interested. I enjoy running into these people at my spots and watching them enjoy them as much as I do.

    I have told my friends and friends I have just met that enjoy photographing wildlife like I do about shooting the Elk in Elk County PA, the Warblers at Magee Marsh, The Eagles at L&D 14, and the Wood ducks at Chagrin Falls.

    I have known about the dam for some time now. But I am happy that you are sharing this special place with others.

    • I agree sharing the joys and locations of photography is great but is it really necessary to exploit it with thousands of people on the internet, most of them you have no clue who they even are? I can remember the days in Elk county without traffic jams, restaurants weren’t running out of food, properties weren’t being posted because of being overrun with people, most of this did not happen until it was exploited on the internet!I can even see the day when privileges at the dam might become restricted. We are their guests free gratis but if the crowds grow, who knows one day it may not even be available to the general public!

      • Will, that is already happening, last weekend people were so inconsiderate that the security at the dam was ticketing cars and later was posting No Parking/Towing signs. In addition to this there is tension between the fishermen and the photographers, kind of a “we were here first so we have rights” type of thing! I also remember those days at Elk County however there is also a big difference here, the Elk are not as affected by the people as the Eagles are! The number of Eagles has dropped significantly in the past couple of years, directly related to a few people trying to benefit themselves. Eagle Day at Conowingo Dam was not the idea of Excelon, it was an idea brought to them that they bought into. I have heard the fishermen complain that they are regulated and also need to purchase a license to fish yet the photographers just show up and infiltrate their space. Real or Not, this is a recipe for a problem and in my opinion it will get worse before it even has a chance to get better!

  4. Troy in Lakewood says:

    Thanks for sharing the information. I’ve heard about this place through other photographers and the web. I will be flying out from CA this weekend for the whole week. Hopefully I will bring back any great photos to share with friends

  5. This may be a nice write up however, this blog and the likes of at least 1 other person that I know contributes to the reason that this is now called the “million dollar row” as well as the fact that the population of birds and good opportunities has declined immensely over the past few years. This has also contributed to the tension between the fishermen and the photographers. I have been shooting here for close to 15 years and this is the worse that it has been! People who want to benefit themselves either with recognition or financial gain should think about the repercussions before they act.

    • I’ve approved all the criticisms here and acted to keep the conversation civil by blocking personal attacks on the critics. I welcome a civilized discussion.

      I don’t agree, however, that my post contributes in any way to drawing in people who otherwise wouldn’t have heard about the dam. This site gets few direct visitors at this moment; my posting about this article on FredMiranda.com was in a forum frequented by photographers way more informed about bird locations that I am and my posting on the Conowingo Dam Facebook page was on a page already dedicated to the dam and thus seen by people who already knew about it.

      Even if I would attract more people to the dam, it’s not like it’s some small hidden treasure that others before have magically discovered. It’s a semi-public place that’s open to all comers and it should be. If that leads to tension between people, that’s because of the behavior of those people and than that’s the problem that needs to be addressed.

      What I’m doing here is help people who already know about the dam and intend to go there. I hope to expand on that by writing a more comprehensive guide that I will probably put up for sale for a modest price. I’m not marketing the dam, I’m helping those who already know about it and plan to visit it.

      I’m sorry that those who have been going to the dam for a long time are sometimes uncomfortable with the changes (I say sometimes, because for every complainer there’s another old-timer who has complimented me on this post).

      Some people seem to take out their ire with the person who started the Facebook page by criticizing me, as if I’m the same as him. I’m not. I don’t know him, though I have messaged with him on Facebook. My efforts here have nothing to do with whatever he has done or intends to do.

      My intentions are very simple: help photographers take pictures of bald eagles at the dam.

  6. Carroll Smith says:

    YEAH this makes it terrible for local people , the place is overcrowded now

    • No, this – as in ‘this website’ – doesn’t make a difference in number of visitors.

      There is nothing that says this place is limited or should be limited to locals or that people who heard about it ten years ago have precedence over those who knew about it five years ago or those who heard about it last week. It’s not even a local operation.

      In any case, there is more than enough space for all the people. Parking is limited and I do understand the concerns of the fishermen, because the photographers use one of the few areas from where they can fish.

      • I have lived in harford county my whole life just a few minutes from the dam. The publicity the dam has been getting for peak season has dramtically increased over the last three years now. For those coming out of town, please be considerate to everyone else around. Common courtesy. I hear people are just butting in and setting up tripods and leaving trash laying around. Yes this is a public place but it is owned by Excelon and if this get more out of control than it is now we may all be in trouble. Perhaps the ones who take no heed to others or their surroundings will be the ones who bans us all from the dam. No one thinks about what the consequences of their actions can cause and just feel they habe the right just like everyone else does. While that may be true, do not make it worse for locals or fisherman, or photographers who have respected the dam for years before a curious tourist or photographer got there.

  7. I too live a few minutes from the dam, and enjoy going there frequently at all times of the year.

    Just wanted to say: Thanks for the article and your website.

    Some of the criticisms left here are just plain silly. “Publicity ruins it for the serious photographer.” Really? Well how about the serious photographers ruin it for people like me who go there all year round? The park is operated as a public place, therefore the Toms, Dicks, and Louises have just as much right to be there as you do. Secondly, I’m sure this fine little blog gets much fewer views than the full page spreads the Baltimore Sun newspaper/website get.

    This is by no means an anti-photographer rant. Guess what…I’m a photographer, and I’ll be there this season with my (albeit non-million dollar) gear just like I have been for years. Sorry if my presence troubles any of you “serious photographers” or fishermen. If it does, you’re free to leave!

  8. Joe Mauerson says:

    Thanks for a nice write up and great information. Nothing worse than a few small-minded photographers refusing to share information and trying to keep others out of something they don’t own and can’t control.

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