The Conowingo Dam is a magnet for eagle-watchers. Here, as the waters of the Susquehanna River surge through the gates of the 4,500-foot-long dam, anywhere from a half-dozen to 40 bald eagles can be seen perched on electrical transmission towers, soaring overhead and swooping into the frothing current for a meal.
Getting the perfect shot with that digital camera, however, is a little harder.
Bob Dorsch of Newark, Del., recently was explaining the nature-themed few days he had in store for grandsons Benjamin Dorsch, 9, and Cameron Dorsch, 6, when an eagle suddenly flew overhead. His wife, Candy, and the boys watched the birds in awe as he fumbled with the camera.
"Whoa, there he goes!" said Cameron.
"Wow," whispered Candy.
The eagle hovered overhead a few more moments against the backdrop of a clear blue sky as Bob jerked the camera around, trying to locate the bird through the viewfinder. It chirped in three short bursts before settling on a nearby branch to pick at a fish.
"Oh!" Candy gasped. "Beautiful!"
Giving up, her husband turned the camera off and slipped it back into his jacket pocket.
"Well, I certainly missed all that," he said. "It takes 12 minutes to get the camera turned on."
Bird-watching requires patience, and nature enthusiasts will mingle for hours on the banks wait- ing for the birds to put on a show.
High concentrations of bald eagles can be found at the dam, part of the Conowingo Hydroelectric Station. A migration stopping point on U.S. 1 between Harford and Cecil counties, the dam is considered one of the best places east of the Mississippi River for bird-watchers because of the steady number of birds and top-notch viewing conditions.
Once an endangered species, Maryland's bald eagle has made a comeback in recent years - the birds nest in 20 of the 23 counties, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.
The state has counted as many as 370 eagles in midwinter recently after typically recording about 100 throughout the 1980s. A survey last January found 280 bald eagles and two of the rarer golden eagles in the state's three eagle hot spots - the Conowingo Dam, Aberdeen Proving Ground and the Blackwater Wildlife Reserve in Dorchester County.
"At Conowingo, it doesn't take that long before you spot something," said Dave Webb, vice president of the Harford Bird Society.
For the eagles at the dam, many of which come from nests at nearby APG, the tall power line towers provide a perfect spot to scout their next meal. Fish are attracted to the warm, shallow waters at the foot of the dam or are chewed up coming through the dam's turbines.
A variety of other birds frequent the area. Don Strehler, a retired pediatrician from Washington state who lives in Holtwood, Pa., deftly pointed out ospreys, great blue herons and ring-billed gulls on a recent weekday without the aid of binoculars or a camera's zoom lens.
For a few months after Sept. 11, 2001, fishermen and bird-watchers were not allowed along the river's banks because of heightened security fears. Visitors still can't walk along the dam, and an observation deck is closed. Fishing was restricted to the shoreline, and a fence was erected around an employee-only parking lot that has a security booth and gate.
Rebecca Brown, who is stationed in the booth 10 hours a day, was once fascinated with the birds. Now she's more likely to work on a crossword puzzle or watch soap operas on a small television set, occasionally popping her head out to warn photographers not to point their lens at the dam.
She marveled at the birdwatchers' collective persistence.
"It can be foggy, pouring rain, freezing cold, and they're out there trying to see birds," said Brown. "You can't even see your hand in front of your face!"
Strehler and his sister, Alice Clymer of Holtwood, Pa., said they had been to the dam every day for the past month and a half.
"We just love it," Clymer said. "It's a real treat."
It's not for everybody, however. A few yards away, Clymer's husband, William, sat in the car fast asleep.
After working the 11 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. shift at a warehouse in Pennsylvania, Hugh McGinnis said he often makes the trip to Conowingo on his motorcycle to watch the eagles. With his hat turned backward, he peered through binoculars and marveled at the sight. The 49-year-old said he wants to spend his 50th birthday at the dam.
"This is unreal," he repeated several times. "It's a symbol of America, for starters. The fact that they're almost extinct, and then the comeback they made. ... It's just unreal."