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Photographers flock to Conowingo Dam for glimpse of bald eagles in Harford County

It plunged through the mist above Conowingo Dam, a bald eagle with its eye on the fish in the water below. Then, as if playing to the crowd, the bird flipped on its back and swiveled its head like an owl to keep a bead on its prey.

On the nearby bank, Nikon whirring, Mitch Adolph nailed the shot, a classic 2020 photograph affirming that bald eagles are, sure enough, Blue Angels with beaks. It’s pictures like that that keep Adolph, 64, returning year after year to Conowingo — along with thousands of other camera-toting enthusiasts — to capture the grace of America’s national bird.

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A bald eagle flies away with a fish from the Susquehanna River. Photographers wait near the river’s edge to take photos of the large birds of prey as they fish for a meal.
A bald eagle flies away with a fish from the Susquehanna River. Photographers wait near the river’s edge to take photos of the large birds of prey as they fish for a meal. (mitch adolph/mitch adolph)

“I’ve been there hundreds of times,” said Adolph, a chiropractor who’d bend over backward to land a winning photo of any of the nearly 200 eagles that feast at the dam each fall on shad, perch, bass and even snakeheads. Come September, he’ll again make the jaunt, a 35-minute drive from his home in Perry Hall, just to scope out the best camera spots at the site on the lower Susquehanna River. Never mind that he has been shooting eagles there for the past 12 years.

“I need to get the lay of the land, because things can change from year to year,” said Adolph, whose interest in photography began with his first encounter with the eagles at Conowingo. “I’m really into this; it’s somewhat of an addiction. You want to get that perfect shot, and when you do, you want to get the next one, too. Eagles are iconic animals — big, bold and with beautiful colorings. And the patriotic aspect is attractive to most people.”

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By October, he said, “I’ll be there from sunrise to sunset and take thousands of pictures a day, a dozen of which I might like and one of which I might like a lot. Eagles are a challenge to photograph because of the contrast between their light and dark feathers. An overexposure will blow out the detail of their heads, and an underexposure loses the detail of their bodies.”

His first time out, years ago, Adolph used a point-and-shoot camera. Now he wields one with a 600 mm telephoto lens “that looks like a cannon.” In 2013, his entry, “Bald Eagle Soaring,” won first place in the annual Conowingo Bald Eagle Photo Contest. What he spends on photo gear, he won’t say “because my wife might read this article.” But some buffs have been known to plunk down $10,000 in their Quixotic bids to freeze the eagles.

His hobby has taught him self-discipline, Adolph said:

“I’ve learned patience from doing this. I can sit there for hours, like a fisherman, waiting for something to happen.”

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When an eagle is spotted, photographers alert others. Some turn the venture into a play-by-play.

“Once, on the fishing pier, a woman began calling out the action of the birds like a sportscaster. She’d say, ‘There’s one coming from the right … now he’s banking to the left … now he’s seen the fish and he’s taking off after it!’” he said. “This went on for several hours. It was kind of entertaining to me, but annoying to some.”

What is Adolph’s perfect eagle photo?

“A head-on shot, with the bird coming at me, talons out, grabbing a fish. I’ve gotten the picture, but … I’d like to get it closer. We [photographers] kid each other about whether the eagles know they are the stars. We’re there to watch them, but maybe the eagles are really there to watch us.”

Sharing a captured moment

As a hospital nurse, Anchalee Dulayathitikol tries hard to connect with her patients. On those occasions when she can’t get through, she pulls out the photos she has taken of the eagles at Conowingo. A picture is worth 1,000 words — or at least enough of them to get the patients talking.

“The photos help me break the ice and build relationships,” said Dulayathitikol, 55, of Whiteford, a caregiver at UM Upper Chesapeake Medical Center, in Bel Air. “Because [the patients] live in Harford County, they love it when I open my cellphone and share the pictures. I build a trust with them; they share my happiness. That is my goal.”

Dulayathitikol, from Thailand, takes her vacation in the fall in order to photograph the eagles. A mother of two, she rises at 3 a.m. for the 10-mile drive to the dam to set up for her shots, where she’s joined by as many as 150 others.

“I’ve sent pictures to my friends back home because there are no eagles in Thailand,” she said. “What they say is, ‘Wow.’ "

While her hobby is cathartic — “I do it to de-stress myself from my hectic work” — it’s the lift it gives her caregiving that’s her main motivation.

“Recently, I had a patient, a gentleman, who [had a reputation as] a difficult person to care for,” she said. “Others told me, ‘He’s just going to ask you to leave him alone.’ But when I showed him my pictures, he said he had worked at the dam, and we talked about eagles and ospreys. That opened the door for me to take care of him.”

A juvenile bald eagle chases another eagle in an attempt to steal its fish below the Conowingo Dam.
A juvenile bald eagle chases another eagle in an attempt to steal its fish below the Conowingo Dam. (Joe Subolefsky/handout)

Catch of the day

Snapping bald eagles snagging fish is goal enough for some nature enthusiasts. But it’s what happens next that draws Joe Subolefsky to the dam. Often, he said, mortal combat ensues between the bird with the fish in tow and his peers in hot pursuit.

“That’s my favorite part,” said Subolefsky, 57, a professional wildlife photographer from Darlington. “The eagles make all of these crazy moves and swoops, trying to outmaneuver each other. It’s like a dogfight between two fighter jets. It’s a huge challenge to get a good, sharp picture of that split-second when they interact, and the live-or-die emotion of that shot. All it takes is them colliding; breaking one bone in a wing can end a life.”

In 15 years, Subolefsky has seen high drama: eagles with seven-foot wing spans locked in battle that sends both spiraling into the river; overpowered eagles swimming to a nearby island to lick their wounds; eagles sparring for a fish that slips from the grasp of both, only to be caught on the fly and spirited away by a third bird.

Kodak moments are swift and spontaneous, taxing the photographers’ composure.

“You can sit there for hours, staring for each other and getting bored to death, only to have all the action be over in one minute,” said Subolefsky, whose wildlife pictures have won awards from Audubon Photography and Ducks Unlimited. He marvels at the birds’ pluck and perseverance and, like others, will cheer a good catch.

At day’s end, he said, “There’s not enough light to get good photos, so I’ll put down my Canon [camera] and stay just to watch the eagles. I may have shot 2,000 pictures but, sometimes, you just want to stop and take it all in.”

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