No, not those Eagles… this post is for fans of our national emblem, the American Bald Eagle – described by Ben Franklin as “a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly…[he] is too lazy to fish for himself.” (and, although Franklin admired the turkey, it’s just a myth that he preferred it as the national symbol)
One of the best places on the east coast for almost guaranteed eagle spotting is the Conowingo Dam, located on the Susquehanna River about 15 minutes off 95, about 70 miles southwest of Philadelphia. From early November through late December, hundreds of eagles stop at the dam to fatten up during their winter migration. We saw about a dozen eagles during our 1 1/2 hour visit on December 15, 2020, including these 3 (high tension wires are apparently a good resting spot).
Fish are stunned as they get sucked into the turbines and then released downstream, making them easy pickings for the eagles (who, contrary to Franklin’s bad mouthing, do fish – although they will often steal fish from each other and other birds).
This is a very popular spot for people watching, as well as bird watching, where observing the birders with their camo gear and fancy equipment can be almost as interesting as watching the birds.
Although the majority of the eagles at the dam are winter migrants, we did spot this nest with an adult adding twigs, so there must be at least one breeding pair.
The adults are easy to spot with their distinctive white heads and tails, although almost half the birds we saw were juveniles. Eagles don’t get the full adult plumage until they are 5 years old.
There is plenty of parking (follow the signs to Fisherman’s Pier) and port-a potties. Bundle up-it gets COLD along the river! There is a small visitor’s center, providing history of the dam and wildlife.
This location marks the highest navigable part of the Susquehanna River. John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) made it here in 1608, during his exploration of the Chesapeake Bay – he marked the spot “Smyths Fales” on his map of Virginia, which was the definitive guide for explorers in the region for over 70 years. John Smith’s life is fascinating. He was so much more than just Pocahontas – mercenary in the war of Dutch Independence, beheader of Ottoman Turks, slave to a Turkish concubine, traveler to Russia and North Africa, traitor to/then savior of/then traitor to/then savior of Jamestown, escaper of pirates, cartographer (and namer) of New England – a lot of adventuring to squeeze into 51 years!
The town, located on the east side of the river, became Port Deposit, and is worth exploring for its collection of cute Victorians along Main Street, backed by granite terraces carved out of the mountain side.
Eagles can often be spotted closer to Philly, since it hosts both winter migrants and summer breeding pairs along the Delaware and its tributaries. The best viewing is usually during breeding season from January-April. We once saw an adult snatch a seagull out of the air while bird watching at Pennypack Park along the river. Heinz National Wildlife Refuge (Exploring America’s First Urban Wildlife Refuge) and Mercer County Park in West Windsor, NJ are other good place to see eagles.