The Kids’ Table

Conowingo Eagle_3877a Life’s tough when you’re a juvenile Bald Eagle trying to get your share of the Thanksgiving feast at Conowingo Dam. Young fellows like this one above have to fight for their meals. It’s all tough love once an eagle reaches adolescence.

It takes four or five years for a Bald Eagle to reach maturity. They won’t get their characteristic white heads and tails until that point. Before then, their plumage is primarily brown, mottled with varying amounts of white.

Remember being stuck at the kids’ table on holidays? Now imagine that just when a nice plate of food is served, one of the grown-ups suddenly steals your place, and your food.

Conowingo Eagle_4590aThis young eagle knows exactly how that feels. He’s successfully caught a fish and landed on the dam to eat his meal…

Conowingo Eagle_4595a Only to have an adult swoop in, chase him off and settle in to enjoy the ill-gotten gains, while he’s left to beat an unceremonious retreat.

Fun Fact: Bald Eagles are thieves by nature. They will harass each other and other birds like Ospreys until their victim drops its prey. They also eat carrion when it’s available. Probably why Benjamin Franklin dismissed them as birds “of bad moral character”.

Juvenile eagles must learn how to catch prey. They do this by watching their parents when they’ve first fledged. Gatherings like at Conowingo offer juveniles invaluable opportunities to watch the adults fish – and steal fish. Even thievery must be learned.

Conowingo Eagle_4136aIt’s all a life lesson. If juvenile eagles don’t learn to stand up for themselves, they won’t survive. Here’s a plucky youngster trying his best to steal a part of an adult’s dinner. The adult is having nothing of it, however. Hey, can’t fault a guy for trying!

I  wonder if either of the two eaglets that were born at Heinz Refuge this spring is among the juvenile eagles at Conowingo this fall.

Conowingo Eagle_4354a Fun Fact: Eagles have extraordinary eyesight, far sharper than ours. They can spot a fish in the water from hundreds of feet up, all the more remarkable because most fish blend in with the riverbed below. Dead fish are easier to see, as they usually float with their light bellies up. Young eagles still learning to hunt sometimes goof and attack plastic bottles instead.

Conowingo Eagle_4615aGotcha! What this young eagle lacks in style, he makes up for in fish.

For more information on the recovery of the Bald Eagle in Pennsylvania, here’s an interesting video:

Conowingo Dam

Dam_Panorama2 The Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River in Maryland is a 4,648 foot long power plant with 11 turbines capable of producing 572 MW of electricity when running at peak capacity. Also known as the Conowingo Hydroelectric Generating Station, when it was constructed in 1928 it was the second largest hydroelectric project in the United States, bested only by Niagara Falls. With a maximum height of 94 feet, it consists of four distinct…

“WAIT!” you’re saying. “This is supposed to be a nature blog! Why are we talking about a DAM? What could possibly be of interest to us there?”


This:Conowingo Eagle_4423a

And maybe this:Conowingo Eagle_4490a

And even this:Conowingo Eagle_4112a

Five Bald Eagles in one shot? (And there’s a sixth in the picture somewhere. Can you find it?) Yes, folks, this was taken just downstream of Conowingo Dam, and those eagles represent maybe 5% of the eagles present there on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. 154, by one very approximate count. Every fall, in November and December, eagles gather downstream of the dam in large numbers. 50, 100, sometimes even more.

“What for?” you ask. Fish, of course. When the turbines are running, fish get sucked through the intake tubes and are discharged below the dam, stunned or dead. Easy picking for piscivorous (fish-eating) birds like Bald Eagles.Conowingo Eagle_4142a

“Why late fall?” you ask. The dam only operates when electricity demand is high. In other words, late fall and winter. By January, most eagles are returning to their nesting sites to raise a new family, and they will be tied to those sites through the summer. But in the fall, they are free to go where the fish are, and in my area, that’s Conowingo.

Birders in the know flock to Conowingo to watch the spectacle. Photographers, too. All the cold weather gear was necessary; it was 25 degrees. Definitely not for the faint of circulation. I lost my feet after the first hour.Conowingo Dam People_4639a

You have to be prepared to wait a long time; it’s not non-stop action. Even though several turbines were running when I arrived at 8 AM, the eagles were very quiet, content to perch on trees or rocks across the river and wait. One or two were obliging enough to perch in trees directly behind us and pose. Or maybe they were amusing themselves watching all the stupid humans shiver.

The wait paid off after more than an hour when more turbines started up. Fifteen minutes later it was like someone had thrown a switch: suddenly it was a Bald Eagle Bonanza. There were eagles catching fish. Eagles dropping fish. Eagles fighting over fish. Eagles stealing fish from other eagles. Sometimes I didn’t know which bird to follow. Other times they flew so close overhead I couldn’t zoom out fast enough.

Conowingo Eagle_4094a Bald Eagle diving on a fish in the Susquehanna River. Note the four other Eagles in the tree in the background, waiting for their chance.

Collage 1           Approach                             Landing gear down                 In-flight food service.

Conowingo Eagle_4282a And away we go with dinner.

Conowingo Eagle_4440aConservation Piece: This bird looks worried. About the American shad, perhaps?  This migratory fish lives in the ocean, but returns to freshwater rivers like the Susquehanna to spawn, usually during the spring or summer. Their numbers have been seriously depleted by fishing, water pollution – and the construction of dams like Conowingo, which block passage to their spawning grounds. Exelon, who operates the dam, has been working to restore the American shad to the Susquehanna River through the operation of two fish lifts at Conowingo Dam. The company has also built a Fisherman’s Park at the foot of the dam, for fishing, bird-watching, and photography. They even run an annual Bald Eagle Photo Contest!

Conowingo Eagle_4255aComing up: The Kids’ Table