The Eagles at Conowingo

December 21-25, 2008

Aberdeen, MD

This page is optimized for

NOTE: images on this page will appear too dark on Windows and Linux machines. 
If you're using Windows or Linux, please go to the gamma corrected version of this page by clicking HERE.

Just outside of Baltimore, MD, at the northernmost terminus of the Chesapeake Bay, there's a hydroelectric dam, called Conowingo.  When the hydroelectric generators are running (as they very often are), fish that wander too close to the generators' intake get sucked into the turbine and are spit out the other side, either chopped into bits or at the very least stunned.  In winter, Bald Eagles gather by the hundreds to feed on the disoriented fish that appear below the dam when the generators are in operation.  And on the weekends and holidays, photographers gather by the dozens to photograph the eagles.
     Getting to Conowingo is easy. From points north or south along the eastern U.S., it's a simple matter of hopping on route 95 and taking the Aberdeen exit.  There are several very affordable hotels in Aberdeen, for those making a several-day visit from afar.  From Aberdeen, the dam can be reached in about 15 minutes by taking route 462 ("Paradise Road") north to route 155, hanging a left onto 155 and then a right onto 161, a right onto Shuresville Road, and finally another right onto Shure's Landing Road, which dead-ends at the dam.

This past winter I decided to spend my christmas vacation at Conowingo, to see if I could finally get some decent Bald Eagle photos.  Though the week I chose turned out to be one of the worst weeks of the season (all the locals agreed that the numbers of eagles present during that week were substantially below the norm), I was able to get a number of very satisfactory images, as you'll see below.
     First, a few more bits of information about visiting Conowingo.  The best time of year for eagle activity at the dam is apparently right around Thanksgiving.  That's when the peak numbers of eagles are generally seen.  Their numbers build up during late autumn, stay relatively stable for a while during winter, and then drop off as the birds start to feel their reproductive instincts kick in during late winter.  They can be active any time during the day (even on rainy days), but their feeding opportunities are largely dictated by the status of the hydroelectric generators (more on this later in the article). 
     The facilities at the dam are quite adequate.  There is more than ample parking, there are heated restrooms with vending machines, and there's lots of space for hordes of photographers to set up along the banks of the river below the dam.  The visitor area is open from before dawn till after dusk, though there's a gate at the entrance that apparently locks at night.  There are gas stations and convenience stores just a few minutes away on route 1 (the road that runs across the dam), so batteries and hot coffee are readily available when needed.
     Now, let's see what kind of photos one can get at the dam with a long telephoto lens.  Below is my "trophy case" from this first visit to the dam, which I hope to add to on future visits.  Further down on this page, after the trophy case, you'll find more info on shooting at this location, including recommendations for lenses, camera settings, effective use of flash at this location, and more.

The Trophy Case

Below are the photos that I was most satisfied with from my first, week-long visit to Conowingo.  Keep in mind that this was an unusually slow week at the dam, with far fewer eagles present than normal.  Click on any thumbnail to view the full image.

You can also view these photos as a slideshow.

Other Species at the Dam

There are a number of other bird species at the dam that are worth photographing.  The number of gulls (mostly Ring-billed) present during my visit was just staggering.  I found the background colors at the site and the ability to get down close to the water at the boat ramp very amenable to gull shooting:

Several other raptors were seen during my visit, including the Red-tailed hawk and the Peregrine Falcon shown below, as well as a Sharp-shinned hawk that I wasn't able to catch:

The sparrow shown above is a Song Sparrow; though I didn't investigate further, there were many sparrows on the road leading into the visitors' area. Also seen during my trip were a Winter Wren, a Golden-crowned Kinglet, both common vulture species, crows, and scores of Great Blue Herons (who have a rookery across the river).  The Peregrine shown above was perched atop one of the enormous utility towers on an island in the river (see below), at a distance of probably 700 feet; the image shown is full-frame (no cropping), so details aren't terribly sharp.  According to the locals, this bird likes to perch on the towers, and will sometimes evict eagles from them. 
     Note that although Golden Eagles are known to show up at the dam occasionally, many juvenile Bald Eagles seen from a distance can look frustratingly like a Golden to the untrained eye.  If you're not an experienced eagle watcher, ask someone more in the know before checking that box next to "Golden Eagle" on your life-list when you see a large brown eagle fly by.

Photography Tips for Conowingo

During my stay at Conowingo, I interacted extensively with the regular photographers there and learned much about the art of eagle photography at Conowingo.  Hopefully, some of what follows will be useful to you if you decide to visit Conowingo in the future.
     My first piece of advice is to make friends with the other photographers, since they (as a group) have many more eyeballs than you do, and those eyeballs are very useful.  When an eagle decides to make a close fly-by, its approach can be very quick.  Getting a "heads up" from other photographers or birders in the vicinity can make the difference between getting the shot and not getting the shot.  All of the photographers that I met at Conowingo were exceedingly friendly and willing to share any information they had about birds.  I owe more than a few of the shots above to their gracious help.


Of the truly serious eagle photographers there at Conowingo that week, the vast majority were shooting with Canon's 500mm f/4.0 lens.  I'm talking about the really serious photographers who were getting stunning images of the birds.  There were also a number of other "casual" bird photographers there with 400mm lenses and even a few with smaller, all-in-one systems, but 500mm was by far the most popular focal length among the most dedicated, hard-core eagle photographers.  Several of these people were using that lens hand-held, with a half-monopod attached to facilitate a better grip; they'd anchor the half-monopod against their hip to provide better stability. A few shooters (myself included) were instead using the Canon 600mm f/4 lens, and one fellow even took his 600 off the tripod briefly for a couple hand-held shots. The new Canon 800mm lens (which goes for $11,000) made a few appearances, and one woman had the old Canon FD 800mm manual-focus lens, which she got off of eBay for $300 (she wasn't getting any flight shots, though, since her lens lacked autofocus).  The 800mm Sigmonster lens (which runs about $6500) also made an appearance.  Those photographers using 500mm and 600mm lenses alternated between using a 1.4x teleconverter and using no converter.  The ability to take off the converter in low-light conditions (which occurred quite often) no doubt gave some advantage over those with the fixed 800mm lens, especially for birds in flight. 
     Despite the popularity of the 500mm-and-up category among the hardcore crowd, I think 400mm lenses can be extremely useful at Conowingo:

In addition to my 600mm/840mm tripod-mounted rig, I also kept a 400mm f/4 lens, with camera attached, slung over one shoulder.  For eagles out over the water hunting fish, the big lenses are pretty much necessary if you want all the feather detail in the bird.  However, many of the eagles, after catching a fish, will fly up to a perch along or behind the parking lot where the photographers are, and as the bird approaches you can get stunning in-flight shots with a 400mm lens.  In fact, with any more than 400mm you typically can't fit the whole bird in frame when it's passing right over you.  So if you don't have a big 500/600/800mm lens, don't think that a trip to Conowingo is pointless. 
Those few Nikon shooters I encountered overwhelmingly preferred the Nikon 200-400mm VR zoom lens, with or without teleconverter.

Eagle Behavior

There are definitely some consistent patterns in the behavior of the eagles at Conowingo, which you can use to your advantage in trying to be prepared for the next shot.  First, there are the preferred perches of the birds.  Many birds perch all the way across the river, or on the rocks below the dam.  These birds are simply too far away, so forget about them.  The other two popular perching areas are the electrical towers on the island, and in the trees lining the parking lot. 


The birds on the towers have a clear view of both channels of the river --- i.e. both the channel right in front of you, and the channel on the far side of the island.  When you're lucky, they'll decide to do their hunting in the near channel.  Keeping an eye on the eagles perched in the towers will help you be prepared for their fishing runs.  Unfortunately, the fishing activity can take place along a pretty long stretch of river, so that the actual fish captures may or may not take place right in front of you.  The best way to position yourself along the river bank is to figure out which of the local photographers is the most knowledgeable, and follow him/them around.  Some of these people have been coming to the dam for 15 years, and they can often predict with uncanny accuracy where the hunting is likely to take place, based on the water level, how long the generators have been running, the locations of perched birds, etc.
     Once a bird has caught a fish, follow it by eye to see both where it is headed and whether it is being followed by any other eagles.  Immediately after a fish capture there can be fights among the eagles as one bird attempts to steal the catch from the other.  These pursuit flights can involve more than two birds, and can be very exciting, though due to their fast pace they can also be frustratingly brief.  Often a bird being pursued or harassed by another eagle will drop its fish into the river, and then the pursuer will attempt to retrieve it from the water, providing you with another chance to get some fishing shots, from that very same fish.  Fish are sometimes even dropped right in the parking lot.



Eagles will often perch in the trees lining the parking lot, and this sometimes provides a great opportunity for stationary shots of the birds: 

After catching a fish, many eagles will take their catch to a tree right next to the parking lot, and you can photograph them eating the fish from very close distances. 


Eagles will also hunt from those same perches, by watching the surface of the water for signs of fish. 


If you find an eagle perched along the parking lot that isn't preening, but is attentively watching the water, that bird may be likely to launch into flight sometime soon, so it may be prudent to keep your camera trained on that bird.  If you time it just right, you can get a "jump shot" of the bird just as s/he is launching into flight from the perch:

Note that some individual birds exhibit consistent behavioral patterns, which you can use to your advantage.  For example, this bird, which we knew as "Zorro", had a preferred perch that s/he like to go to, and we also knew that s/he had a high success rate at catching fish, so that if several eagles were in the air, s/he was the one to watch:


Here's another bird that we knew as "Mohawk", who tended to catch fish close to the dam and then take them to the trees near the restroom:


As just one more example of behavioral patterns, several of us noticed that many of the birds had a tendency of looking down once at the fish which had just been caught, providing one last chance to catch a facial shot of the bird before it returned to the island:

Use of Flash

The use of flash at Conowingo is a tricky business.  Even with the popular Better Beamer (a small fresnel lens which attaches to your external flash unit), the range of your flash will not be enough to illuminate birds far out over the water.  Birds perched along the parking lot are ideal for flash, as long as you have a beamer.  During the day, the birds don't seem to mind the flash at all, though if you flash them at dusk they will often fly off. 
     For birds out over the water, even the Better Beamer can be inadequate.  Several of the local photographers at Conowingo have surmounted this difficulty (to some degree) by building their own, much larger beamers, which can magnify the light from your flash substantially more than a standard beamer:

These home-made beamers are easy to construct, using materials readily available from art supply stores.  Following the advice of a photographer at Conowingo, I built mine using a fresnel lens from Barnes-and-Noble and some foam-core, hot glue, and styrofoam from Michael's.  Mini bungee cords from Wal-Mart completed the package.  Even with such a mega-beamer, fully illuminating an eagle far out on the river simply isn't possible, though I did note that I was able to induce eye-shine in eagles perched on the electrical towers out on the island --- fully 700 feet away:

Camera Settings

Most of the bird photography I've done has been of stationary birds --- usually small birds like warblers and the like.  For large, fast-moving birds like eagles, there are several things that I found I needed to change about how I set up the camera (largely due to the help of an expert Conowingo photographer named Andy).  First, for the flash I switched to using high-speed sync.  I typically avoid high-speed sync, because at higher shutter speeds very little of the light from the flash reaches the subject, due to the "windowing" effect of the shutters.  For eagles in flight, however, the max sync speed on my camera (1/300 sec for the Canon EOS 1D Mark III) simply isn't fast enough to freeze the motion of the bird.  Shutter speeds in the vicinity of 1/640 to 1/1250 are more likely to freeze an eagle in flight.  At Conowingo I found it useful to re-program the "quick dial" on my camera so that I could quickly dial down the shutter speed to no more than 1/640 or 1/800, so that some of the light from my flash could reach the bird.  In the end, I think few of the successful photos of birds in flight were impacted by the flash anyway.
     A far more important consideration was the basic metering of the bird.  Following Arthur Morris and others, I've adopted aperture-priority mode ("Av" on Canon bodies) as my default metering mode, and this has worked very well so far.  My quick dial is programmed for exposure compensation, so after a quick first shot to judge exposure, I can rapidly dial in an exposure compensation for subsequent shots.  I quickly learned that most of the serious eagle photographers at Conowingo shoot exclusively in manual exposure model ("M" on Canon bodies), and I was soon to follow suit.  Though manual mode may sound a bit scary, it's actually just as easy to manage as Av once you've got a baseline setting, since you can rapidly dial in adjustments using the quick dial.
     For baseline exposures, the photographers at Conowingo rely on a handful of white landmarks nearby.  On sunny days, they find the whitest rock visible on the island and shoot a test shot of that, then adjust their shutter speed and aperture until the "highlight alerts" on their camera just start to blink (shown as red in the photos below):


On overcast days they use a white sign out on the island (again, red indicates the highlights that would be flashing on the camera's LCD):

At dusk they use the white bark on a sycamore tree next to the parking lot.  By calibrating their exposure to these white landmarks, they can be sure that they won't blow the highlights on an eagle's white head.  Everything else is relative to that.  The background may end up being overexposed, or the brown of the eagle's body might be underexposed, but without feather detail in the bird's white head (the most prominent part of any Bald Eagle), the resulting photo would be sub-par anyway.  Everything else can be fixed in postprocess (ie., in Photoshop).
    For action shots, it's best to keep your camera in high-speed drive mode (10 frames-per-second on my camera) and to "spray and pray". Keep in mind that if you're using flash, only the first frame may be illuminated, unless you have a fast-recycle flash unit and/or battery pack.  For flight shots, you'll want predictive focusing mode ("AI Servo" on Canon bodies), and you may want to check whether the number of focus points on your camera can be tweaked.  On my body, it turned out to be useful to set the custom function which allows the focus to switch to adjacent focus sensors when the subject drifts off of the central sensor, and to use "focus priority" tracking rather than "drive priority" tracking.  Without these settings, my camera tended to want to focus on the background rather than the bird:

If you like smooth backgrounds that emphasize the subject, then keep your apertures fairly wide.  Remember that for any aperture, depth-of-field increases with distance to the subject.  When the bird is gliding low over the water, a narrow depth-of-field becomes necessary to avoid giving too much detail to the background:


When the bird is higher, depth-of-field becomes less important, because any background features that you don't like can be more easily edited out in Photoshop:


Other Considerations

There are a number of other tips that the generous photographers at Conowingo shared with me during my stay; I'll mention just a few.  The first is to continually re-check your exposure, since the light levels can change rapidly as clouds come and go.  Also keep alert for birds in flight --- eagles can approach from any angle, even from behind the parking lot, since they roost back there.  The sooner you detect one approaching, the greater your chance of being prepared when the bird arrives within photographing distance.  Also stay aware of the state of the hydroelectric generators.  When the generators start up, red lights will flash and a loud siren will whine, giving a several-minute warning before the floodgates open.  The eagles have become conditioned to associate these signals with the arrival of food, and they can burst into a feeding frenzy just after the sirens go off:



     You'll maximize your chances of getting some good shots if you put in a full day.  Arrive before light and stay until dark (remember that silhouettes can sometimes make good images).

Go out even in rain or snow --- precipitation and overcast lighting can provide an interesting mood to shots.  Move around a lot and take note of how light and color change as your angle to the water changes.  You can sometimes change the color of the water just by changing your angle slightly (though changes in cloud cover can have a big effect too):



Most importantly, stay close to the most experienced photographers in the crowd --- watch what they do, heed their advice, and don't get distracted by people who talk too much. 

see also: