Hundreds of people gathered along the Harford County shore of the Susquehanna River Saturday to marvel as bald eagles who call the area around the Conowingo Dam home soared over the river below the dam and then skimmed over the water to snag a fish in their talons.
Young eagles, whose head and tail feathers were still dark, and older bald eagles with the white heads their species' name is derived from, could be seen among other birds, such as sea gulls, flying over the river, roosting on transmission line towers, in trees and on parts of the dam that jutted into the river.
Eagle photographers are a common sight at the dam, which is owned by Exelon. The energy firm even sponsors an annual eagle photo contest.
Saturday, however, was the inaugural Conowingo Eagles Day, when photographers and bird watchers were invited to the park below the dam to view the eagles – it was also the kickoff of the 2013 Bald Eagle Photo Contest, which lasts through Dec. 31.
"This is prime time for eagles here in the Susquehanna River," Exelon spokesman Robert Judge said.
Anyone interested in entering the contest during its third year should visit http://www.exeloncorp.com/conowingo for more information and to obtain entry forms.
Judge said more than 425 visitors registered Saturday, and he estimated there were about 200 more who visited but did not register.
Visitors to the dam during Conowingo Eagles Day could take in displays of live birds presented by representatives of Animal Behavior and Conservation Connections of Dover, Del., and Adventures with Raptors of Damascus, Md.
David Lychenheim of Conowingo Bald Eagles also made a presentation on eagle photography.
Spectators gathered on the riverbank Saturday to watch the eagles, and on the observation platforms and paved paths that make up the Fisherman's Wharf & Park leading to the entrance gate to the dam's power house, where the massive turbines used to generate hydroelectric power are housed.
Drew Alexander, age 10, of the Baldwin community in Fallston, came with his parents, Jeff and Leigh, and 9-year-old friend Bryan Nichols, who also lives in Baldwin.
Drew said he had seen eagles in the zoo and the woods; he said he enjoyed seeing the eagles "in their natural habitat."
"It looks better than when they're in a cage," he said.
The quartet watched the eagles from the riverbank; Saturday was their first visit to the Conowingo Dam.
Drew Alexander watched the birds through binoculars and his wife snapped photos with her Canon Rebel T4i camera.
"It'd be nice to bring a picnic lunch up here, wouldn't it, just watch them?" Leigh Alexander asked the children.
She found herself envying the photographers with the massive lenses, which typically cost thousands of dollars.
"I thought it was big camera until I came here and saw [the other cameras]," she said.
The cameras and lenses that could be seen Saturday were a smorgasbord of top-of-the line photo equipment.
Judged joked that there was "millions of dollars" in photo gear at the dam.
Photographers took up positions wherever they could get a clear view along the walkways; once they spotted an eagle, they jammed their faces to their eyepieces and swung their lenses skyward.
The rapid-fire clicking of shutters made them seem like machine gunners trying to shoot down fighter airplanes.
Peter Cai of New York traveled to Harford County for the weekend to shoot pictures of eagles, his third trip this year.
He had a Canon 1DX camera, with an 800mm lens, which he called "top of the line."
Cai said his camera could get 12 to 14 shots per second, "so you have more chances to get the good shot."
"I like coming because of the wildlife," he said of Conowingo Dam.
The dam is known for the wildlife that live in the vicinity, including the eagles, great blue herons and the shad which make an annual migration up the river and get over the dam with the aid of massive "fish lifts."
Ron Shaffer, who lives near State College, Pa., made a three-hour trip with his friends to get to the dam and shoot eagle pictures.
He said he comes to Conowingo about six to eight times a year.
"Just the numbers [of eagles]," he said when asked why he comes to the dam. "They say it's the best place east if the Mississippi River, and I believe them."
Shaffer used a Canon 7D camera with a 300mm lens; he said he would know how his photos turned out once he downloaded them onto his computer.
"We're never satisfied, always trying to get something better, but today was a good day," he said.
His friend Wilmer Zook had two cameras, including a Nikon D7000 with a 630mm fixed-length lens, which he called his "eagle lens," and a Nikon D5100 with a variable lens of 24 to 300mm, which he called his "people lens."
He said the eagle lens "will give you absolute best possible quality as far as detail," that it will capture the eyes and "feather detail" of the eagles.
Zook said photographers constantly try to get better photos of eagle
"After a while it's not quantity anymore," he said. "You just want that one special shot."