Inside Conowingo


 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:

Consider the Lilies/Venice Rookery

Rookery stretch

“And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? “And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these.…” Matthew 6:27-29

We arrived at the Venice Rookery just a bit after noon. Although it was a little cool, the sun was shining on a clear blue-sky with those huge white fluffy clouds that remind you of how wonderfully marvelous it is to be alive and outside enjoying all that this earth has to offer. We hadn’t been to the Rookery before and were anxious to see what birds, if any, might be nesting there. Even though it is Florida, I was not sure that any birds would be raising chicks in the cool weather this season. Raising babies is a dicey business even when the weather is nice and warm.

But there was no reason to worry…not one bit. There were birds – Cormorants, Egrets, Herons, and Anhingas – all going about the business of nesting and raising chicks in the Rookery….just like they should be.

anhingaWhen we arrived, it was relatively quiet. There were a couple other people there and one of the locals ambled over to give us the scoop on the Rookery and the lay of the land (or lake in this case). The site which is on Annex Road in Venice, Florida is not very large – a few acres perhaps – and consists of a smallish pond with a brushy tree island in the middle. It is on this island that the birds come to nest.

Egret 2I was advised that the lake/island was man-made just for this purpose but I do not know for sure. Not that I question that the whole site was planned and developed by people but I did have some doubts. After all, it is not always a question of “if you build it, they will come.1

Egret displayConsider Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). It is a beautiful spot on earth – we’ve been twice and we did not see nary a Pelican there on either trip. It appears that the pelicans have abandoned the island that is part of the refuge that the birds had apparently used as a rookery for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years. There is a beautiful park with trails and a lovely boardwalk that gives a great view of the island in the Indian River….but the White Pelicans no longer nest there. We left the refuge and drove some five or so miles down the road along the Indian River and, as we crossed the causeway bridge, discovered an island filled with pelicans and nests….of course, not where anyone could stop and look and take photographs. So I assumed that the Pelicans had decided to start up a new rookery on another island notwithstanding the efforts of the parks service to protect them at the old rookery site. So, pretty much the birds go where the birds go.

anhinga 2But back to the Venice Rookery…..You can walk around the lake and see the Rookery from all sides or you can just take a seat on one of the many benches provided by the Audubon Society that leases the site/rookery from Sarasota County. Our impromptu guide apparently loves the place for he mentioned that he came every day to sit and watch/study the birds and I cannot think of a more relaxing and engrossing activity….wonderful way to spend your days.

heron and chickSo who doesn’t love babies? There were actual babies to be seen in the nests although I have a tendency to call all birds – adult and juvenile – “babies”.   Like everyone who comes to the site, I stopped immediately on the edge of the lake directly across from the island and started snapping pictures and excitedly saying, “Oh, look at the Great Blue Heron on the top….and the Anhingas on the tree on the left side….and wow, did you see that Great Egret displaying for his female companion?”. I was all over the place looking at the birds oohing and ahhing and trying to get just one more photograph. The birds were just so close and I was sure I’d get some great photos…well, I hoped so anyway. We walked around the lake – a relatively short and easy walk with benches all along the way so that there was always a place to take a moment and rest and watch.

My husband and I have a birding/hiking rule …… “If you come to a bench, sit on it”. We have found that benches can be few and far between sometimes on the trail and taking a moment to sit and be quiet can give the birds time to accept our presence in the area and come out of hiding….. possibly giving us a better view.

cormorantsSo, once I sort of calmed down a bit and we had checked out the rookery from all sides, we found a bench in a warm sunny spot and just let the atmosphere of the place surround us. As I sat listening to the chirping, cackling, peeping of the birds and feeling the warm sunshine on my face and back, I pondered the peacefulness and beauty of the place. Everything seemed so calm and serene. In a world filled with war and hate and all sorts of strife, the birds are oblivious to all that……just living out their lives, eating, sleeping, mating, nesting, raising their young…surviving. I was at once reminded of the “lilies of the field” that Jesus spoke of…….they do not work or spend their days worrying about things that they cannot change or prevent…they just live. And the lilies are beautiful and perfect in their situation – exactly where and when they should be at any given moment in time. Likewise, the birds in the Rookery seemed to be peacefully living out their lives with absolutely nothing to worry about.

pelicanBut all life has strife. An alligator also lives in the lake at the Rookery. He (or she) swam lazily near the island, I’m sure waiting patiently for some mishap or accident that would put a chick within his reach. I’m also sure his patience is rewarded at times….more than I like to think about. But the alligator is also a part of the “circle of life” and, perhaps, has babies too that need a parent’s help. Most animals are relatively helpless at birth and spend time in a nest (of sorts) close to a parent who provides food and stands guard providing sustenance, safety and security…but eventually, all babies mature and all must stand on their own. For all life on earth is precious and so very fleeting….time flows on…..the proverbial sands flowing too quickly through the hourglass.

We all must reconcile ourselves with this reality. We live, we struggle, we die…..and, although outward appearances show things to seemingly be peaceful and calm, there is always the struggle. It is what it is and it is what it will continue to be…..for as long as there is life on earth and as long as there are Egrets and Herons and Cormorants here at the Rookery.


  1. Field of Dreams; Director – Phil Alden Robinson; Producers – Lawrence Gordon & Charles Gordon; Screenplay – Phil Alden Robinson; Based on the book, Shoeless Joe by WP Kinsella; Universal Pictures/TriStar Pictures; April 21, 1989; USA
  2. Bible, New Testament, King James Version (KJV), Matthew 6:27-29.