Bald eagles, the nation's symbol of strength and freedom, are flocking by the dozens to Harford County this month for what naturalists and birders say is an annual celebration, a giant eagle convention of sorts, with plenty of feasting, drinking and soaring with the crowd.
Every year from about mid-November through early January, bald eagles from all over North America congregate on the Susquehanna River near the Conowingo Dam. They come not to breed, not to nest, but apparently just because other eagles do it.
"It's unusual to have them here so close to human activity," said June Vaughn, an environmental science facilitator for the Philadelphia Electric Co.'s Conowingo Visitors Center.
Ms. Vaughn and others at the dam lead eagle watches, bird identification and environmental programs for school groups, bird watchers and the public throughout the year. "It's really a thrill to watch people observe an eagle for the first time," she said.
Naturalists suspect the fine feeding available along the warm and turbulent waters of the Susquehanna near the dam brings bald eagles here now for a little rest and rockfish before they begin or resume the chores of parenting.
Ms. Vaughn said she and one other birder counted 79 adult bald eagles, a federally endangered species, on the lower part of the dam in three days last January. They counted another 37 eaglets -- babies less than 5 years old -- at the same time.
Such numbers are startling, since fewer than 90 adult nesting bald eagles were found in the entire state of Maryland in 1977, when the Department of Natural Resources began its eagle surveys.
Eagles were in serious trouble in the years after World War II xTC when the widespread use of the pesticide DDT caused eggshell thinning and nesting failure among bald eagle populations. Loss of eagles' natural wetland habitat and hunting the birds for sport also contributed to their decline.
But the banning of DDT in 1972 allowed the eagles to regain some of their strength as a species. Since that year, bald eagles' nests have been seen in ever greater numbers in North America, from Alaska to Baja California.
Ms. Vaughn said that Maryland now has about 500 bald eagles. That compares with 489 eagles in 1992, 425 in 1991 and 410 in 1990.
Harford County is home to 11 nesting pairs of bald eagles that stay here more or less throughout the year to hatch and raise eaglets. Most of their nests are at Aberdeen Proving Ground. About four other nests exist in isolated places known to a few human neighbors and bird-watchers and are protectively guarded by them.
Eagles mate for life and raise one to three eaglets a year, usually going back to the same nest each year.
A nesting pair of bald eagles on Hollaway Farm near Darlington used the same nest from 1987 through 1989, Ms. Vaughn said, adding room and renovating it each year. The nest had grown to 12 feet across and 15 feet deep before it fell to the ground in 1989.
The Hollaway eagles liked the neighborhood, though. They built a new nest on an adjoining farm in 1990 and have returned to breed there each year since.
Spotting eagles isn't always easy for novice bird-watchers, even with powerful binoculars. The Conowingo Dam attracts many species of birds, including osprey, vultures and hawks, which often look very much like eagles.
Look for the large wingspan of an eagle, Ms. Vaughn suggested. The outstretched wings of a bald eagle may measure 6 to 8 feet across. Also, as the eagles soar, their wings remain flat rather than curving upward, as do those of a vulture or a hawk. Adult bald eagles are some what easier to see than are immature birds because of their characteristic white head, gold eye and yellow bill. Eaglets are all brown and tend to blend into the brush, especially in the winter.
Rowland Island, an outcropping of rock and vegetation supporting two electrical towers in the river below the dam, is a particularly favorite spot for some of the eagles vacationing here.
Early morning and late afternoon are good times to catch the birds actively hunting for fish.
Harford residents who may not have known that bald eagles consider Harford such a happening place will get the chance to see and learn more about them at an Eagle Watch, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 13, from Fisherman's Park below the Conowingo Dam. A second Eagle Watch will be held, same place and hours, on Dec. 4. Bring binoculars and dress for cold weather.
For more information, call the Conowingo Visitors Center, 457-5011.