Archive for the ‘Birding’ Category

Inside Conowingo

October 14th, 2017 No comments


 The Susquehannock natives called the site Conowingo meaning “at the rapids”. Today, we (and quite a few other birders, nature enthusiasts, and photographers) think of it as the place with the dam where all the Bald Eagles come in winter to eat the remains of fish that don’t always make it through the big turbines alive. Well, I suppose fish do make it through…and I suppose also that some of the eagles (and herons and gulls and vultures) actually catch live fish when they are perusing the menu below the dam.

When the Philadelphia Power Company began construction of a new hydroelectric dam “at the rapids” on the Susquehanna River near the small town of Conowingo in 1926, I’m sure the intent wasn’t to provide such a magnificent winter feeding ground for the birds, but, as things happened, that is what developed…..along with a new continual source for about 500 Megawatts (MW) of electricity. (The hydroelectric plant is connected to the eastern portion of the continental electrical “grid” and how much is produced by Conowingo depends on how much is needed by the grid and the price per kilowatt on any given day.)

Building the dam had some negative effects too. And there is a website ( that lists all of them in detail. The dam changed the seasonal water flow (although I have to add, it also stops flooding downstream). It blocks the spawning runs for shad, eel, herring, and a variety of other fish. And it has, of course, changed the aquatic habitat and altered the river’s natural ability to purge itself of the sediment that now remains trapped behind the dam.

Conowingo Dam from Fisherman’s Park

It took two years (amazing feat all by itself) to build the dam. It is 105 feet high by 4,648 feet long. The reservoir created on the Susquehanna River behind the dam is about 14 miles long and covers 9000 acres. Sadly, there are no more rapids “at the rapids” on this part of the river and the original town of Conowingo lies somewhere at the bottom of the lake. It happens.

We have visited the dam many times. I mean, really, it’s a no-brainer if you love birds and especially Bald Eagles; it is the place to go. And, on top of that, it is just about two hours away and great for a day trip up to see a few eagles, grab lunch somewhere, and head home before dark. Really, it is a perfect local birding spot. Even in summer when the eagles are scarce, there are always Vultures (but take care where you park because the big black birds have a taste for anything rubber that is attached to an automobile) and Cormorants and Gulls….plenty of gulls. I have read that, of the 170 species of birds recorded at or near the Dam, there are at least 11 species of gulls. And then there are the Herons…who doesn’t like to see a beautiful Great Blue Heron fishing along the river?

Lined up to get that perfect photograph….standing room only.

Just a quick note about the photographers: If you want to see thousands of dollars’ worth of “glass”, i.e., binoculars and super-sized zoom camera lens, just head up to Conowingo in December or January. Pick any Saturday – ah, just pick any day of the week – and you’ll see photographers and birders lined up along every inch of the rails and fence line along the river in Fisherman’s Park with their gear set up on expensive tri-pods (and some not so expensive ones) just waiting for that perfect eagle flying, fishing, fighting moment. And, trust me, they get the pictures.  A quick stop by the Visitor Center at the top of the dam and you can see amazing photographs taken right there below the dam.

So, we too have stood on the banks of the Susquehanna below the dam at Fisherman’s Park (did I mention fishermen love the place too….for obvious reasons?) in the chill of winter with me freezing my patookas off watching the eagles scuffle with each other over the fish they’ve caught (or fish parts they’ve retrieved) looking up at that dam and wondering if they ever let anyone go inside and take a look around the place.

Turns out they do. If you call on a specially designated day in August (got this info from the Visitor Center when I stopped in one afternoon for a potty break before heading home), you can sign up for a tour in September when they have the Conowingo Dam festival….which is not to be confused with the Eagle Days Festival they have later (or is it earlier?) in the year. This year, I called in and signed us up. So, one fine hot Saturday in September (the 23rd), we headed up US Route 1 north of Belair to the dam and waited for our turn inside.

View from inside the dam just between Turbine Hall and the gates.

Actually, I was quite excited at the prospect of getting inside the dam. I had always admired its industrial art deco type styling sitting there straddling the Susquehanna River.  You can tell from the outside that it is gonna be pretty cool inside too.

Still looking for a retirement job.

We donned hardhats and were issued ear plugs. There wasn’t any construction going on – we wore the hardhats because the fishermen outside were known to cast their lines out with heavy weights that sometimes broke off and came crashing through the windows in Turbine Hall. Just another hazard of working there, I suppose. The earplugs? Well, it was noisy with the turbines running.

Turbine Hall

Generator #1

Our tour guide led us into a side door and right into Turbine Hall which is pretty much as far in as they let us go. But that was okay although I really wanted to go down into the bowels of the place and see the twenty-seven (27) foot butterfly valves that were originally used to control the water flow through the turbines. Nowadays the water is controlled by something called wicket gates which do not sound nearly as impressive as humongous butterfly valves. But, alas, we did not get to go that far into the dam….guess we would have needed more than hardhats and earplugs for that.

One of the older turbines.

Going down under Turbine #2

We did get to see the big beautiful turbines in the aforementioned Turbine Hall of which there are eleven (11). Although the dam was built to accommodate eleven (11) turbines, only seven (7) were installed when the dam was completed in 1928. The last four (4) higher capacity turbines were added in 1978. Each of the new turbines drives a 65 Megawatt (MW) generator increasing the dam output to about 548 MW. The original seven turbines produced about 252 MW. In total, the plant at Conowingo adds about 1.6 billion Kilowatt (KW) hours to the grid.

East Fish Lift

We also got a look at the two fish lifts that have been added to the dam to attempt to accommodate the spawning of the shad, herring, eels, etc. The east lift is very large and essentially a large elevator. The fish swim into the bottom and then the lift is raised the 100 feet to the top of the dam where the fish are released. This lift was at the top when we visited; I did not climb all the steps up to the top to see if there were fish inside when we visited although it is not the season so I expect the lift was empty.

The west lift is much smaller and apparently used by scientists to monitor the shad, count them during spawning season, and sometimes to collect the fish and transport them to creeks and tributaries up river which could be a daunting task considering the Susquehanna runs for 464 miles from Cooperstown, New York (yep, the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame) to the Chesapeake Bay at Havre de Grace, Maryland.

Our guide did tell us a bit of a tall tale about the fish coming through the turbines and then swimming over to the lift so that they could go shooting down through the turbine again….swirling around like on a roller coaster….but I think he was pulling my leg….I really do.

Susquehanna comes from a Len’api word – Sisa’we’hak’hanna – which means Oyster River or “river with the oyster beds” which probably works better for the end of the river at the Chesapeake Bay rather than the beginning up at Cooperstown. There are some who say the river still runs under the Bay and all the way to the Atlantic Ocean at Virginia Beach, Virginia. That makes sense as the Chesapeake is basically a relatively shallow estuary with the deep parts running right through the middle, i.e., the river.  The Susquehanna is the longest river on the east coast of the US draining just about 27,000 square miles….so that accounts for quite a few tributaries to transport those shad to during spawning season.

Dam with several gates open.

With all that water, you’re gonna need quite a dam. Conowingo Dam includes fifty (50) crest gates to control water flow from the reservoir. Less than ten (10) are open to the lower river at any given time – generally. But the dam is also used for flood control so that, as the water level rises in the upper river and reservoir, more gates are opened to the lower river and the Chesapeake Bay. The flood control gates are operated by overhead cranes that basically are hooked up to a gate at the top and then the gates are raised and lowered to allow water to escape the reservoir.

Crane used for lifting and lowering flood gates. It would be operated from above the gates.

Overhead cranes.

All fifty (50) gates have rarely been needed. The last time all the gates were opened was June 19-24, 1972 after Hurricane Agnes. The water levels were so high and the water pressure so great on the dam that explosive charges were laid on the eastern side of the dam as a precautionary measure. Fortunately, with all gates open, the water levels receded to a safer level and they did not have to destroy the dam. On the other hand, with all the gates open, Port Deposit just down river was totally flooded out…all that sediment and mud just washed right into the little town and pretty much buried it in muck. But the people who lived there had been evacuated in time so came back home and went to work. The town did recover.  After all, in the past couple hundred years, Port Deposit had seen quite a few floods and, worse, ice flows being located so close to the Susquehanna. Nowadays, anytime the gates are opened, the operators at Conowingo have to give due notice to the officials at Port Deposit to allow time for evacuation if necessary.

Today the dam is owned and operated by Exelon Power Corporation and is one of the largest non-Federally owned dams in the United States.  Just shy of ninety (90) years old, it is not certain what the future holds for the dam. There are some who say the power being generated is not needed so much and the river should be returned to its original state allowing nature once again to take its course. Part of me agrees – take it down and let the river flow again “at the rapids”; but another part of me thinks it would be a shame to destroy the beautiful old dam. In the meantime, the eagles and cormorants and gulls and vultures and herons will come in winter to hunt and fish and fight. And, as long as they do, the birders and photographers will also show up to stand in the cold and watch the spectacle unfold.

Sources for Factual Information:

  1. Wikipedia Conowingo Dam –
  2. Conowingo Dam –
  3. Wildlife South Conowingo –
  4. Exelon Conowingo Dam –
  5. Harford County Bird Club – Conowingo Dam –
  6. Conowingo, Maryland –,_Maryland
  7. Susquehanna River –
  8. For great information on visiting Conowingo, Emily Mitchell‘s blog/visitor guide:

California Days – Kings Canyon

September 29th, 2017 3 comments

Kings Canyon Sequoia RedwoodsYou enter Kings Canyon National Park via California Highway 180. Just inside the park, you can either take the General’s Highway (198) south to go through Sequoia National Park or continue on 180 all the way to the bottom of Kings Canyon and the end of the road. That is what we decided to do…explore Kings Canyon down to the end of the road…after all it was only twenty-six miles one way. What the heck, we could do that in a couple hours and be back up to the visitor center in time for a late lunch. Easy-peasy.

Olive and Citrus Groves

Olive and Citrus Groves on the way to the National Parks. Where it is irrigated, it is green; otherwise, it is dry scrub.

What I didn’t realize or just didn’t stop to think about was that, if you’re going into a canyon, you’re gonna be going downhill…and later have to come back uphill. I suppose I was thinking that we were just going to go out about twenty-six miles and stand at the top at a marvelous scenic overlook and gaze down into Kings Canyon at all the beautiful trees and rocks and then slide into the car for a leisurely drive back. We were not actually going to drive down into the canyon, right? After all, the line on the map looked rather flat and went straight across the page. I just didn’t register that all those little squiggles might mean going downhill.

road to KCAnd, duh, I didn’t consider that we’d been driving on nothing but mountain roads – up and down – looking over one precipice after another since we started this adventure in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Yep, these mountains ain’t the Smokies that we know and love back east. In the Smokies you get lots of driving time on the ridge of the mountain where the road is relatively flat with lots of Christmas tree farms. In the Smokies, stopping at a scenic overlook doesn’t mean you’re on a tiny gravel pull-out trying not to look over the edge of infinity as you lean out of the car.  I really think the powers that be in California should look into getting more guardrails for those overlooks.

Ground Squirrel

Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel (and not a Chipmunk at all)

Now, let me back up just a bit. We had started our exploration of Kings Canyon with a visit to Grant’s Grove to see the Sequoia Trees (see my last blog here) but opted to drive down to Three Rivers to our hotel via Sequoia National Park on Tuesday and then come back and finish exploring Kings Canyon on Wednesday and then re-visit Sequoia National Park on the following days with each day ending at our hotel in Three Rivers. But Three Rivers is at the bottom of the mountains so coming back involves driving north maybe fifty miles up through the mountains to get back to the park entrance each morning and then back down through Sequoia National Park each evening. So every day it was a big loop for about an hour’s drive with a good bit of time on dicey mountain roads.

The Road Ahead

Checking out the road ahead.

To make matters worse, the Generals Highway through Sequoia was under construction…during its busiest tourist season…..because summer is the only time to make repairs to the road because the area is snowed in much of the other three seasons. So, the narrow two lane road was partially blocked in some places as the construction crews worked on building retaining walls and making roadway repairs. Timing was everything and delays were inevitable.


The building of cairns seemed to be a very popular pastime in the park as we saw several large groups of them. The cairns reminded me of the Inuksuks we saw in Alaska but these were just stone monuments and were not built to have a human shape.

Now, I have a question. Why does it seem that all the stops for construction delays are in spots where there is absolutely nothing to look at – no view at all? Here in a park with magnificent views around every curve but every time we ended up stopped for construction work, we were between two trees and three large boulders (at least) we couldn’t see around. We couldn’t see anything but the cars in front of us and the ones behind us. Do you suppose they planned that just for my benefit?

KC Restaurant

New Restaurant and Souvenir Shop at Kings Canyon NP

Oh well, back to Kings Canyon which I’ve decided is a cross between Sequoia with its giant trees and Yosemite with all the rocks and waterfalls. I got it into my head that Kings Canyon was a relatively new national park because I’d never really heard of it before and because they had several newly built concessions near the entrance including a lovely new restaurant, a packer’s supply & grocery store, and (of course) a brand spanking new souvenir shop. Now, I thought the souvenir shop inside of the official visitor center across the street had better stuff than the new place but both shops had plenty of the usual t-shirts, hats, walking sticks, and tchotchkes so that no tourist would ever have to leave the park empty-handed. Me – I’m into t-shirts and refrigerator magnets.

Kings Canyon NPBut Kings Canyon is not a new park at all. It was established in 1940 and includes 461,901 acres or about 722 square miles. That’s a big bigger than the acreage you could see driving on the 26 mile paved road. So, the part of the park we saw was very tiny compared to the rest of it.  To fully appreciate the park, you’d have to get out of the car and do some serious hiking. It might take a while and you might not make it back in time for lunch but the trails are there if you want to see it all and you can get a trail map right there in the visitor center with the souvenir shop next door.

Have a Seat


The park is comprised of two sections – the first we had already visited which included Grant’s Grove of giant Sequoia Trees. The second part is everything else. The Canyon is about 8200 feet deep (so now I find this out!) and one of the deepest in the United States. Only about 10% is accessible by car along Highway 180. The park includes the headwaters of the Kings River and the San Joaquin River along with the very accessible Grizzly Falls. And that sounded good to me – something that was accessible without me having to hike long distances at high altitudes.

KC Hwy 180

Highway 180 crossing part of Sequoia National Forest and into Kings Canyon National Park. This is the section accesible by car.

So we grabbed a sandwich and munchies at the aforementioned camp store and headed out for that 26 mile journey down into Kings Canyon. The road was relatively flat at first but it wasn’t long until we were heading downhill. The driving was dicey but the views were magnificent.

Dying Trees

A section of dead/dying trees brought down by drought, fire, and Pine Bark Beetles.


We did note large sections of trees that had been devastated by disease, drought, and those dastardly Pine Bark Beetles. By the time the rangers notice that a tree is infested with the Beetles, it is too late to save it. It becomes very clear how wildfires can spread over thousands of acres in a short amount of time in hot dry weather. (Speaking of wildfires, we managed to stay south of the big fires this summer that were reported just north and west of Yosemite. We had passed through the area with the fires just a few days before they started.)

Rocky RoadKings CanyonAs noted, the views on the road down into the canyon were spectacular. But the highlight for me was the opportunity to see the continent’s geologic transition zone showing the seam where two continental plates had collided.

Geo Transition Zone

Geologic Transition Zone – Where the tectonic plates meet. The blue granite in the back and the golden sandstone up front.

I just never imagined you could see the two sides of the plates so clearly. And I also thought all that was further down south near San Andreas Fault…never occurred to me that the junction between the plates could be in the mountains too…even though that is what made the mountains in the first place. On the eastern side, magma had pushed up later cooling to form granite, basalt, quartz diorite, and granodiorite. (Yes, I looked that part up.) The western plate being comprised of softer sandstone was pushed under the opposing eastern plate. It was remarkable to see the higher gray-blue granite towering over the reddish-gold sandstone and to try to wrap your head around the action that was still taking place here in these mountains….slowly and surely year after year one tectonic plate pushing up and the other folding under.

Geo Transition Zone 2

Another shot of the Geologic Transition Zone.

Along the way, there were lots of beautiful wildflowers growing along cold rapidly flowing rivers. And there were waterfalls like Grizzly Falls to explore.

Grizzly Falls

Grizzly Falls

The 26 miles went by very quickly – it only took us three hours to get down to the bottom of the canyon and the end of the road.

End of the Road 2Let’s see 26 miles in 3 hours puts us at a breath-taking speed of just about 11.5 miles per hour…..lots of curves and lots of scenic overlooks before we got to the end of that road. We had our lunch sitting on a rock by the south fork of Kings River…lunch with a view indeed.

Kings River

Kings River – Lovely spot for a lunch break.

And then it was time to head back up the mountain. We made much better speed going back up….but not much. I drove while my sweet husband napped. After a good long snooze, he woke up and realized we were creeping along (did I mention lots of curves and almost non-existent shoulders on the road?).  He took back over and we were at the top of the mountain in no time. Then we breezed down the King’s Highway through Sequoia notwithstanding a few construction delays and got back to Three Rivers just about supper-time. Easy-peasy….well, mostly.

End of the Road KC

This was absolutely the end of the road. From here on in, you’d have to walk. In fact, there’s a six-mile loop that starts just past the rocks but you’ll need a permit to go there so the rangers can figure out who owns the cars left in the parking lot if you don’t make it back.

Sources for Factual Information:

  1. Wikipedia Kings Canyon –
  2. Sequoia & Kings Canyon NP –
  3. Cairn –
  4. Inuksuk – 
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