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:

Time to Meander – PA

Susque BridgeThe distance from our home in Maryland to the Outer Banks in North Carolina is roughly three hundred miles as the crow flies or the stagecoach rolls. Driving at about sixty miles per hour (MPH), it should take the average driver just under five hours to reach Kittyhawk on a good day if you make all the lights and don’t stop too long at the Cracker Barrel for lunch. We pride ourselves on being pretty good drivers but I have to admit that, some years back, we made that trip in an unbelievable record breaking time of four and a half days. Amazing! Yep, you read correctly – we took more than four days to get to the Outer Banks from Maryland, the state right next door to North Carolina. And we weren’t even driving a horse and buggy – it was a real car with a speedometer that goes all the way up past a hundred miles an hour. (Yes, I tried to say “miles per hour” but the southern in me just couldn’t keep it up.)  No, to answer your question, we did not have any car trouble or flat tires. We just set our usual road trip pace. While others may speed down the interstate like a bat outta hell, we tend to stick to back roads and just meander along at a snail’s pace….or, more precisely, at a pace more fitting to bird watching and just looking around. And by meander, I don’t just mean we drive slowly, we also drive up and down country roads, stop at every possible scenic overlook and visit any and all parks and gardens we might pass on our way.  It sometimes takes us hours (and maybe days as in the case with the Outer Banks) to get some place so when we go any place, we have to plan ahead because you see, “time is of the essence1 with us.

Let me correct that: our traveling takes scheduling, mostly. It takes planning when we’re going somewhere by plane or train or when we need touring assistance. When we head out in the car, what we need is time. Like Harry Chapin, we keep a “watch on time”2  when we have “work to do2 or a deadline or a train to catch but otherwise, we just go where the car and the GPS takes us. On the other hand, we are not quite in sync with J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous line, “Not all those who wander are lost….”3. Quite often we are, in fact, lost and, we are lost by design.

And so it was that we headed out on the road a few weeks ago. Our “plan” was hatched when my better half volunteered to help out in building a deck at the Global Aid Network (GAiN) warehouse near Mount Joy, Pennsylvania. See, he is the better half since he actually went to work and I had no real intention of helping build that deck. I was just going along for the ride. And, since we need approximately two hours to get from our home in Maryland to the warehouse in Pennsylvania, we gave ourselves one and a half days. It worked out splendidly.

conowingoWe started out heading for Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River at the upper end of the Chesapeake Bay. It is a birding hotspot that every birder in Maryland knows about and visits at least once a year….mostly in winter. The attraction is the Bald Eagles who fish and hunt on the river at the bottom of the dam….again, mainly in the winter. The absolute best place to get information on Conowingo Dam for birding is the blog of an excellent local birding photographer, Emily Carter. I had heard many good things about Conowingo and wanted to scope it out (pun intended, of course) in summer and then maybe go back later in the year. I had heard that there weren’t many Bald Eagles there in summer but there were a goodly amount of herons and gulls that would make the birding interesting so why not? Of course, we couldn’t just get in the car and drive straight there – that would defeat the whole point of giving ourselves all that extra time to meander.

We headed up in that general but, certainly not specific, direction – that is, more or less northeast. It was a beautiful day and we blasted through Baltimore and soon got our first sign to pause. It was one of those brown ones that announce that a state park or historical marker is nearby and couldn’t be more than just a short piece off the main road. The first park-o-the-day was Gunpowder Falls State Park. Nearby was another great find – Marshy Point Nature Center. Two for the price of one – how can you beat that?

marshy pointWe headed for the Nature Center first and, as is the way with these things sometimes, the road signs led us first one way and then the other until we found ourselves very close to where we had actually turned off the main highway. It felt sort of like a Dr. Seuss story or was it The Hobbit who went “There and Back Again4? (Yep, I’m back with Tolkien). The Nature Center was lovely but we pulled in behind a school bus filled with children (pre-teens maybe). Now, there is nothing I like more than knowing young’uns are getting out into nature and learning all that they can about birds and bugs and wildflowers but, on the other hand, there is nothing I like less than trying to bird in a park filled with noisy yakking kids running around with butterfly nets and clipboards. Well……nothing except people walking their dogs and letting them off the leash to run free. Don’t get me started on this one. So, we looked around a bit and left the nature center to the kids and moved on to the state park – which was lovely and big and relatively kid-less.

gunpowder fallsThere is a small cost for entry ($3) but well worth it to visit the park and enjoy all the amenities. It is big enough (maybe 18,000 acres) to handle several busloads of kids without noticeable impact. There is a beach for swimming, meadows for playing, a boat launch for cruising and fishing, rails-to-trails hiking, and a few good habitats (waterfront, streams, marshlands, woods, meadows, etc.) for birding. But there weren’t many birds to be seen this day. We did find an area that was relatively birdy on Graces Quarters Road over by the marina and boat launch – at least it sounded that way because we heard lots of birds singing but didn’t see too many willing to show themselves to us. (DNR Guide to Gunpowder Falls State Park)

Whatever – on to the next place – lunch! I discovered that the upper parts of Maryland and lower parts of Pennsylvania are filled with silver diners. Oh, the names are different but these restaurants are all the same – big silver metal sided buildings with lots of parking and lots of menu selections inside. Lunch is good.

fishingThen it was on to Conowingo. The Dam is off the main road a bit but easy to find and easy to access. Although birders go there often, I had wondered how easy it would be to get there and if you would have to walk a good distance to get to the best spot for seeing the eagles. While it is true that you cannot get too close to the Dam itself – way too dangerous, there is a small park open to the public called the Fishing Pier with paved parking and several options for viewing the river and the birds and fishing, of course. Emily’s blog had advised that one should park by the porta potties to see the eagles fishing near an island in the river and possibly landing in the trees to eat their catch. Emily’s advice was to move up closer to the Dam to see eagles fighting and scuffling away from the trees. Her advice was good. I think the biggest problem in the winter might be standing around in the cold weather not to mention competing with the number of birders and photographers who come and take up the choice viewing spots and parking spaces…and using porta potties. In the summer, you do not have these problems except for the porta potties part. We found a few photographers set up near the “island view” but there were plenty of vacant parking spaces and several available picnic tables. We also headed up near the dam (easy walking and a short distance so we could have walked) and parked near the ramp going down to the area that seemed to be preferred by the fishermen of which there were plenty. And they seemed to be catching quite a few fish.

juvvieThere were tons of gulls and cormorants near the dam. They were easily viewed with binoculars but a more powerful scope would have been better for making precise identifications or looking for the rare ones. There were quite a few Great Blue Herons – I stopped counting at twenty-five (25). And the island was completely swamped with Black and Turkey Vultures. But there were not so many bald eagles….as expected. We did see about five (5), maybe ten (10)…..most were juveniles who didn’t have full adult plumage. But they were all beauties and put on a pretty good show – a little fishing and a little fighting.  Alas, the distances were too much for my small camera. I think that on future visits, I will take Emily’s advice and rent a camera with a big ole long lens that can spot a flea on a skunk’s back from over half a mile.

eagles adultWe stayed at Conowingo for a couple hours and then headed into Pennsylvania and up towards Lancaster. You know, I have been to Lancaster many times in the past and I thought I knew it relatively well. But it turns out; I had only passed near Lancaster visiting the Amish markets out in the country and had never gone into the city at all. Our trustworthy GPS remedied that situation right away. Everywhere we tried to go, the GPS directed us right back through Lancaster….but not the same part of Lancaster every time. I did not know there could be so many one way streets within a two block radius of a city…. outside of Washington, DC, that is. But we managed to find them all, every single one of them, along with a couple streets that were closed for construction that our dear “Road Witch” did not seem to know about. It’s a pretty neat city though with lots of row houses that reminded me very much of Baltimore and Philadelphia.

silver mineBut we did manage to find a couple parks to explore – Longs Park which was more of a family oriented recreational park with a few domestic ducks but no birds otherwise – and a great little park called the Silver Mine Park near Conestoga outside of Lancaster. This last park was big, included several different habitats that would be great for birding, walking trails, and natural water sources – creeks and ponds. But best of all, the park had benches along the walking trail. I am big on benches in parks. They allow you to rest when you get tired and to sit and let the birds find you which they are apt to do once everyone settles down and stops making so much noise. We did meet one gentleman walking there who told us that, yes, there was an old silver mine on the property and they (the parks service?) used to give tours of the mine until it got too dangerous. Now you can hike near the mine but cannot go in to explore. What with the price of silver these days, I wonder that no one has decided to sneak in and find out if any silver remains down deep in the mine and ready to be appropriated.

chickies overlookWe managed to find several other great parks that would be good for birding but we did not see too many birds. Maybe the heat had forced the birds deep into the woods but we saw very few along the areas we explored. We did take a relatively long and difficult (rocky) hike up to Chickie’s Overlook near Colombia where we were treated to great views of the Susquehanna River and a couple of little birds I think were Pine Warblers. The markings seemed good for Pine Warblers and they were certainly feeding in a couple pine trees but they just wouldn’t cooperate by being still long enough for me to get a good picture that I could check against the guides later when I got home. They did match the info in my mobile apps so I’m going with the call. These two birds were about the best sighting of the trip….okay, except for the Bald Eagles…and the Herons…and the Cormorants. Yep, they are all the “best” for me……even the Vultures.

deck buildingBut, all in all, what with all the meandering and looking around, the “best” birding I did was at the GAiN site. While the men worked on building the deck, I listened to an audio book and did a little casual birding of the fields of corn and the farmer’s house nearby. I saw mostly yard birds – nothing rare or unusual – but the birds I saw were entertaining and beautiful as always.  And, that’s enough for me on any given day. The Blue Jays and Cardinals and Chickadees reminded me of the birds at home – waiting patiently for us to return from our meandering and head on back down the road to home and the important stuff – like keeping those feeders full of good black oil sunflower seeds, millet, and safflower.

mallard hybrid

The full quote from J.R.R. Tolkien:

“All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,

A light from the shadows shall spring;

Renewed shall be blade that was broken,

The crownless again shall be king.”3


  1. Anonymous phrase. [I looked it up but no clear person or source could be identified for this commonly used phrase.]
  2. “Let Time Go Lightly” (Lyrics); Greatest Stories Live (Album); Harry Chapin; 1976; Elektra. [Youtube Audio/Video Link – ]
  3. The Fellowship of the Ring; J.R.R. Tolkien; United Kingdom; George Allen & Unwin (publisher); UK; July 29, 1954.
  4. The Hobbit There and Back Again; J.R.R. Tolkien; United Kingdom; George Allen & Unwin (publisher); UK; September 21, 1937