So let’s say you have the opportunity to stop wherever you would like between South Carolina and Connecticut to photograph during the winter. Where would you go? I spent a lot of time planning each and every stop and with only a limited amount of time and money on my hands my choices revolved around a few criteria. First of all, I wanted what I call “odds you can bet on”. That means that I wanted locations that are going to be productive 99% of the time. There might be a place that’s great for bobcats. But from experience with something like that in a place you don’t know, you are going to fail most times. If you get lucky, you might have fantastic results, but I wanted something I can count on. Not every stop was like this though. I also wanted to hit subjects that I know are popular and with 4 stops, I can afford one that doesn’t have “odds you can bet on”. With places that I have experience with, I also always want a backup plan in case something goes wrong – you just can’t predict with wildlife. That brought me to Conowingo Dam in Maryland. As always, I did a quick look around to check for possibilities. The dam had a lot of visitors but most everyone was ignoring the dozens of Black Vultures around. Even, flat, overcast light is fantastic for bringing out the detail in black subjects and if you throw in the rain that was drizzling, you have a great opportunity in my book.
There was one reason and only one reason I chose to stop here. The Susquehanna River and the dam here create special conditions that are supposed to be great for photographing Bald Eagles. We have Bald Eagles in South Carolina, but here there are supposed to be a lot more and much more importantly they actively fish in a somewhat predictable location. This place was a bit of a gamble though. The big question mark is that I didn’t know how it would be photographically speaking. Considering that the nearest reliable place to photograph fishing eagles without a boat that I know of was in Iowa, it was a gamble I was willing to take. But I definitely lost on this gamble. There are two big problems with photographing here. You can see the first problem here. The background of this shot is one I really don’t like. The problem with the dam is the dam. Between the dam, power lines, and some big metal towers, the background in most directions aren’t good and unless the eagle is super close to you, you can’t really blur the background out fully.
So you have a limited range of view where the background are clean. If you do get an eagle in this area of the background, it brings us to the second major problem: the fish that the eagles are here for. The reason the eagles come here is that the dam opens up periodically. When it does, fish pass through the turbines and many of them are cut up making them easy pickings for the gulls and eagles that wait downstream. But the fish really get cut up and it just isn’t a good story to tell of an eagle catching a cut up fish.
Aside from the unavoidable problems, I had further bad luck at Conowingo Dam. There just weren’t that many eagles around. There were maybe 10, a far cry of the 100+ eagles that are there during its peak. Some of this is timing (I can’t move Christmas), but some of this is just bad luck. To make matters worse, most of the eagles stayed very far away on the opposite side of a very wide river and did most of their fishing there. Sure there are photos to be had, but under these conditions they were very few – especially compared with places like the Outer Banks and the Barnegat Jetty. For me, my favorite eagle shot of the day was probably this flight image. I am a sucker for snow in wildlife photos, especially since it is so rare for me now that I live in South Carolina.
In a nutshell, I was disappointed with Conowingo Dam. I was able to get a few decent photos, but not many. With all day in one place and barely getting ten decent photos, it was a bit of a let-down. However it was great fun to watch the eagles I did see and I was privy to some great things. Once an eagle turned its attention to a flock of pigeons that was sitting on a rock a few feet away. The eagle snatched one of the unfortunate pigeons for its next dinner. I still can’t imagine why the pigeons landed right next to the eagles. Some of my favorite shots of the day wound up coming from the Black Vultures rather than the eagles. Unfortunately they only stayed in the area for a little bit of the morning. I was left with a decision for tomorrow – do I stick it out with the eagles or do I turn to the backup plan?