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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 (www.conowingodam.org) 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 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conowingo_
  2. Conowingo Dam – http://www.conowingodam.org/issues/river-dam/
  3. Wildlife South Conowingo – http://wildlifesouth.com/Locations/Maryland/Conowingo_Dam.html
  4. Exelon Conowingo Dam – http://www.exeloncorp.com/locations/power-plants/conowingo-hydroelectric-generating-station
  5. Harford County Bird Club – Conowingo Dam – http://www.harfordbirdclub.org/conowingo.html
  6. Conowingo, Maryland – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conowingo,_Maryland
  7. Susquehanna River – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susquehanna_River
  8. For great information on visiting Conowingo, Emily Mitchell‘s blog/visitor guide: https://bellaremyphotography.com/2012/12/09/a-visitors-guide-to-the-bald-eagles-at-conowingo-dam/

Nebraska Trifecta & More (Day 6)

June 12th, 2017 2 comments

cropped-cropped-Good-Birding-to-You.jpg(Previously on Nebraska Trifecta & More – NE Day 1, NE Day 2,  NE Day 3, NE Day 4, and NE Day 5.)

It’s dark.

And it’s cold.

And the wind just won’t stop blowing…..which makes the cold even more biting….especially to someone sitting in the dark trying to be perfectly still and quiet.  No talking is allowed in the blind where I sit shivering and holding my breath worried that I might make some inadvertent noise that would not only ruin the adventure for me but also for everyone else huddled in this blind.

The blind is an old yellow school bus with all the seats removed along with all the windows along one side of the bus. We sit as comfortably as possible on plastic folding chairs that we’ve pulled up to the window openings as closely as we can where we are straining to hear…well, at this point, anything……anything that might signal that there is something out there in the darkness in the Lek besides us.

Lek define1

And then as if on cue, we hear the clear beautiful sounds of a Western Meadowlark as he sings to greet the morning sun. Then, faintly at first, we start to hear the clicking and booming of the Sharp-Tailed Grouse, our target bird.  Suddenly, it sounds like they are all around us but we are still totally in the dark and I try with some difficulty to follow the sounds with my eyes to catch even a fleeting glimpse of the birds to no avail.

As the sky lightened behind the bus/blind, I could sense movement out there in front of me in the dark. Jerry leaned over and whispered asking me if I could see the white tails out in front of us along a small ridge about forty feet away.  I couldn’t…but that’s why we have binoculars so I raised the glasses up to my eyes and…..behold, the birds were there….right there in front of us.

grouse at dawnThe Grouse were spread out all along the little ridge which formed the outer edge of this Lek. They were “dancing” – heads down, wings spread, walking to and fro, clicking and booming all over the place.  There was a little preening, some strutting…and just a few territorial squabbles among the males doing the dancing.  Without the binoculars – nada; with the binoculars – a whole lotta shaking going on.

dancing2As the morning sun filled the Lek and the blind with warmth and light, we could see more clearly, the cameras came out and the soft click and whir of photographs and videos being taken added to the sounds around us. Everyone had put electronics on mute so the predominant sound would be the clicking and booming of the birds in front of us.  We didn’t dare speak or make any sound that might scare the birds away.

Of course, the males were the ones doing all the dancing – trying to get the attention of one of the females who had started to show up about daylight…. after the males had been dancing for some time. And, as expected, the females walked around the Lek nonchalantly as if there weren’t even any males there at all let alone dancing right in front of them. They acted as if they just couldn’t be bothered with all this nonsense.

female grouse2

sharp tailAnd then, a female Prairie Chicken showed up! Two life-birds for us in one fell swoop!  We had signed up to see Prairie Chickens tomorrow so this little female was a preview of things to come. But what was she doing here at the Grouse Lek?

hybridAnd the appearance of the female raised another question. We wondered if Prairie Chickens and Sharp-Tailed Grouse ever mated….being that their Leks were relatively close together in the Sandhills and the birds were somewhat similar. Jerry whispered the question to our guide who pointed to a bird right there in front of us in the Lek…..a bird that looked a little different…a little bit bigger than the other Grouse males and with coloring just a little bit “off” when compared to the others…..it was a hybrid.  He was quite the dancer…..the guide told us (in whispers) that, although the hybrid had been coming in to dance for several years, there was no indication that the he had ever been successful in breeding with or producing offspring with any of the Grouse females.  The hybrid hadn’t been seen up at the Prairie Chicken Lek so perhaps he thought he was a Grouse rather than a Prairie Chicken.

dancing

sexy2I took an unbelievable number of photos.  I knew that many were destined for the digital trash can on my computer so I took as many as possible in the time allowed hoping for some good ones. Too soon, it seemed the guide alerted us that it was time to go. We headed out of the opposite side of the bus and walked silently and quickly back down the hill to where another old yellow school bus was ready to take us back to the ranch.

Creeping awayThe rest of the day was scheduled to be a blur of tours and activities…we needed a break after such an amazing morning. So, after breakfast and a presentation on Bald Eagles, everyone else set out on festival activities and we headed back to the cabin for a brief rest. The cabin was actually a small house that we were sharing with two other couples……..note to self – next time, get there for an early check-in so you get the master bedroom and not one of the extra bedrooms.  The house has a lovely view of Gracie Creek so after a nice shower, I found a big ole easy chair in front of the picture window and just contented myself enjoying that view and any birds that happened to come along.

GracieWe headed back to the big barn at the ranch for lunch and afternoon activities….which for us meant birding around the Calamus Reservoir Lake.  But first, there was a presentation on land management and the arduous task of removing non-native Spruce Trees from the Sandhills.  I’d never thought about trees being the problem but it appears this non-native species has become quite invasive and is changing the ecosystem but not in a positive way. So we learned more about controlled burning than I ever thought possible…such is the way of briefings at conventions.

straw flowersThe festival offered optional tours for the morning and afternoon giving participants three options that would allow one to do two out of three – a ranch tour, birding at the lake, or birding around town at Burwell. As noted, we rested during the morning tours and took the lake birding option for the afternoon.  We opted to follow the school bus this time in our own vehicle….lots more comfortable that way.

waxwingsWe enjoyed the afternoon birding which started near Gracie Creek so that everyone could get good looks and photographs of the American Pelicans there. The weather had changed…the sun had brought warmth and the wind died down….for the first time since we’d traveled north into the Sandhills…..and without that breeze, it got downright hot. We spotted lots of fishermen – the people kind as well as the bird kind – along the lake and quite a few picnickers as all the locals seemed to come out to enjoy the beautiful day

owlThe prize of the day though (well, other than the Grouse) had to be the Long Eared Owl that was nesting right there on the ranch. I had seen a group of people heading out and looking like they were intent on something over in the trees by the cabins. I took a chance and followed them taking a moment to wave wildly at Jerry to come too. If you’re out and about and see a bunch of people standing and gazing upwards into a tree, then you’d best follow them and see what’s going on.

The reward was the afore-mentioned Owl – rare even for Nebraska. She was nesting up in one of the trees and we could only see her head and those long ears…but it was enough. I tried to get photos but there were just too many branches and twigs in the way…this mama had chosen her nest well.  But just to see the bird was enough to get me doing the “lifebird” dance. Yes, it was turning out to be a great trip.

storytellerEvening brought dinner and a wonderful presentation by a local storyteller, Ms. Cherrie Beam-Callaway, who was just amazing. One minute she was giving us an overview of how she got into telling stories in the first place and the next she was a lonely pioneer living on the prairie with her husband and ten children just trying to survive the harsh winters and never ending wind and sand. I was spellbound as she told “her” story which actually was a concoction of the stories of many pioneers that the storyteller had gathered over the years. She had stitched them all together flawlessly into one fifty year saga like some scrap-work quilt detailing the hardships for one small family living on the prairie in the late 19th century.

Since we had just visited the Dowse Sod House, in my mind, this strong Irish immigrant and her family was living right there in that little house near Comstock.  I could see them going about their daily chores, cooking, sometimes getting together with friends, working the fields, rounding up cattle, growing what vegetables they could in that unyielding ground, and generally just living out their lives trying to make do.  Okay, I realize that the Dowse House wasn’t built until 1910 and really wasn’t associated with these stories at all……but in my imagination, it all worked out somehow…..so much so that, when the storyteller recounted the horrors of a great raging thunderstorm that flooded the area and tore out one whole wall of the little sod house destroying almost everything they owned, I could see it happening right there to that tiny house we’d just visited.

Needless to say, this was one talented storyteller and she ended the evening with a bang for us. After the presentation, we found that we’d been sitting at the table with the lady’s husband and grand-daughter both of whom looked very twenty-first century and had been discussing the lack of wi-fi and which roads to take back to Omaha so that the grand-daughter could practice her driving skills.  Back to reality it is…

We headed on back to our cabin intent on getting to bed early that night…..the next morning we’d be up before dawn again and looking for Prairie Chickens. We were ready.

robin

Links:
Sandhills of Nebraska.
Burwell
Switzer Ranch/Calamus Outfitters
2017 Prairie Chicken Festival
Gracie Creek
Calamus Lake.

Itinerary:
April 3 – Baltimore, MD to Omaha, NE (via Minneapolis, MN): 1153 Miles
April 4 – Omaha to Grand Island (via Route 30): 160 Miles
April 5 – Grand Island to Kearney (via Interstate 80): 49 Miles
April 6 – Meandering around Kearney and Gibbon (Interstate 80 and the Back Roads): ?? Miles
April 7 – Kearney to Calamus Outfitters/Burwell (Route 10/Route 2/Route 183/Route 96): 122 Miles
April 8 – Calamus Outfitters/Switzer Ranch, Calamus Lake: Maybe 25 miles around & about.

Sites Visited Thus Far:
ADM Grain Company Driveway (Day 2)
Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary (D3 & D4)
Calamus Outfitters & Switzer Ranch (D6 & D7)
Calamus Reservoir (D6)
Crane Trust (D3)
Dowse Sod House (D5)
Eagle Scout Park (D3)
Fort Kearney Historical Park (D4)
Fort Kearney State Recreation Area (SRA) (D4)
Freemont State Recreation Area (SRA) (D2)
Gracie Creek (D5 & D6)
Grandpa’s Steak House (D4)
Great Platte River Road Archway (D4)
Higgins Memorial (D2)
Mormon Island State Recreation Area (SRA) (D3)
Townsley-Murdock Trail Site (D2)
Windmill State Recreation Area (D4)

Birds spotted

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