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Conowingo Dam Site Guide

by Rick Blom

NOTICE: Rick Blom passed away on December 11, 2002.

(The Conowingo Dam Annotated Checklist is also available.)

( Click on the map to browse )

Conowingo Dam
is located in
Maryland on the
Susquehanna River
just northwest of
where the river
empties into the
northern part of the
Chesapeake Bay. It is
about eight miles
above the town of
Havre de Grace. If you are looking at a road map, Havre de Grace is where Interstate 95
crosses the Susquehanna. The precise location of the dam is where Route 1 crosses the
river. Route 1 crosses the river on top of the dam. Access to the base of the dam, and to
gull and other birdwatching, is from Route 1. Just south of the river, turn east on
Shuresville Road. After one-half mile, make the first left, onto Shures Landing Road.
Follow the road to the parking lot at the base of the dam, where it dead ends. Most
observation is done from the area closest to the dam at the far end of the parking lot.
There is a pavilion there which provides shelter during bad weather. The parking lot is
open every day of the year from at least 6:00 a.m. until 10:00 p.m. Shuresville Landing
Road is steep and winding and may not be passable immediately after snowstorms but it
is quickly cleared because it is the access road for workers at the dam. There are public
bathrooms at the pavilion. Just north of the dam, on Route 1, at the junction of Route
222, there is a store that has gas, coffee, and sandwiches. At the same intersection there
is a small diner that provides cheap food. It is warm.

The primary attractions at the dam are gulls and Bald Eagles. Conowingo is an
electricity generation plant. When the turbines are running, large intake valves suck
water, and fish, through the dam, providing excellent feeding for piscivorous birds. The
generation schedule is erratic because the dam is a secondary facility and only generates
when demand is high. There is some generation almost every day, but on some days it is
only early in the morning and late in the day. There is a fisherman's catwalk across the
front of the dam which is accessible to birdwatchers most days and provides close looks
at the feeding birds. On the far side of the dam, where there is no access, there are a
large number of rocks where birds loaf. It requires a scope to see those birds well. Birds
feeding at the base of the dam during generation are in the air most of the time and are
close enough to be viewed with binoculars.

Large numbers of gulls and Bald Eagles are typically present from mid-October
through mid-March. The highest numbers of gulls are present from December through
February. Some gulls and Bald Eagles are present in all seasons. Also present all year are
large numbers of Great Blue Herons, and there is an active heronry in the woods across
from the parking lot. The nests are visible from the viewing area and breeding activity
can be watched throughout the spring and summer. A few pairs of Black-crowned
Night-Herons have bred on the large island immediately below the dam in recent years
and they are present year-round. In non-breeding season they tend to congregate during
the day in the brush and small trees at the south end of the island. Careful searching with
a telescope usually results in the discovery of at least some of the birds. Small numbers
of other herons are present spring through fall. Terns are occasionally numerous in
spring and fall. Waterfowl, especially Common Mergansers, are fairly numerous in
winter. Ospreys attempt to nest on the large transmission towers on the island below the
dam. Bald Eagles have attempted to nest on the transmission towers on the other side of
the river the past several years.

Bald Eagle numbers vary from a half-dozen in summer to 30-40 in winter. It is not
unusual to find 20 in a single scan from November through February. While there are
larger concentrations elsewhere, Conowingo is considered one of the best places east of
the Mississippi River to view Bald Eagles because the birds are nearly always present in
good numbers and viewing conditions are excellent. The sun is nearly behind observers
all day throughout the year. About one out of three winters a single Golden Eagle is
found with the Bald Eagles.

Gulls: The reason most bird watchers go to Conowingo. Numbers begin to build in
November with the influx of Ring-billed Gulls. Numbers in some years reach 20,000 by
the end of the month. Until January, Ring-billeds typically outnumber Herring Gulls 5-
10 to one. Following the advent of colder weather in most years, the ratio changes to
one-to-one and in some years the preponderance of birds are Herring Gulls by mid-
winter. The pattern is largely dependent on how cold a year it is and how much open
water is available to the north of Conowingo. Gull numbers begin to diminish in early
March. Between 100-500 Great Black-backed Gulls are present throughout the period.
The numbers of Bonaparte's Gulls is highly irregular in fall. In some years numbers in
November and December reach 2500, but in many years no more than 100-200 are

Rarer gulls: The large concentration has resulted in many rarer species being found.

Lesser Black-backed Gull: Perhaps should be included in the regular list above.
They have been found every year (persistent observations at the dam go back more than
14 years) and single-day counts have varied between 1-17. Lesser Black-backed is
missed on fewer than five percent of the days between November and February. All ages
are seen annually and first-winter birds are fairly frequent. There is a retaining wall in
the center of the dam and an adult has been seen sitting on the wall almost every day in
winter for at least a decade.

Iceland Gull: Present almost every winter. The high count is 11. Typically 1-4 are
found. Most are first-winter birds but every age has been seen.

Glaucous Gull: Present most winters but less numerous and consistent than Iceland.
Typically 1-2 are found and the high count is about 5. Almost all are first-winter.

Thayer's Gull: Present in at least half the years. Most years only one is found but
the seasonal high is three. Most are first-winter or adult.

Slaty-backed Gull: A gull thought to be a Slaty-backed was seen by several hundred

observers over a two-week period in the winter of 1998-99. Uncertainty exists about the
range of variation in the species and although photographs and field notes seem to
support the identification in many observers eyes, others retain some reservation. It is
difficult to absolutely rule out hybrid origin on the basis of the available evidence.

California Gull: Found three times in winter. Probably overlooked because close
observation of sitting birds is more difficult.

Common Gull: A single first-winter bird of the European race was reported by
multiple observers several winters ago. A second report of a first winter bird, seen and
photographed by dozens of people and widely circulated as a Common Gull, is now
thought to be a slightly aberrant Ring-billed Gull. Controversy over the identification of
the species in first-winter plumage has created uncertainty about the status of the

Common Black-headed Gull: Reported about six times. Records span the winter

Little Gull: Found twice, both adults with large flocks of Bonaparte's Gulls late in
the fall.
Franklin's Gull: Two late fall records, both adults.

Laughing Gull: Scarce but regular in late summer and early winter.

Black-legged Kittiwake: Two records. First-winter birds were found in

December and January of 1997 and 1998.

Photo by Les

Caution: Occurrence of large numbers of birds depends on the availability of fish,

primarily gizzard shad. Several years ago a spring flood wiped out the gizzard shad
breeding effort and numbers were quite low the following winter, and the high count of
gulls was less than 2,000. In good years, with normal fish numbers and cold weather,
25,000+ birds can be found at the base of the dam most days. During the times when
there is no generation the birds disperse down river and onto the lake above the dam, to
which there is limited access. During the slow period, no more than 5,000 gulls may be
present for close observation. In the winter of 1995/96 25,000 gulls were present until a
sudden thaw in late January resulted in a tremendous volume of water coming down the
river. The floodgates at the dam were opened for several days and there was downstream
flooding. Following that event there were virtually no gulls at the dam for the rest of the
season. No similar circumstance has occurred in the twelve years of observation.

When there is no generation and gulls are not feeding below the dam, the birds tend
to gather in flocks on the rocks directly across from the pavilion, on the rock bars and
small islands down river, and on the river (also referred to as the pond and the lake,
although it is part of the Susquehanna River) above the dam. It is often possible to
observe thousands of gulls from the south end of the parking lot or by walking the trail
downriver and scoping from various vantage points. Almost all of the rarer gulls have
been seen down river at times, and Franklin's Gulls have only been seen from the south
end of the parking lot and from farther down river.

Above the dam.

It has long been a source of frustration that viewing birds above the dam is difficult.
The access is limited, but persistent efforts have revealed that large numbers of birds are
present fall through spring and that some species considered rare in Harford County are
nearly regular there. The Susquehanna River is a major migratory pathway for
waterbirds and many stop in the deeper water above the dam but are rarely found on the
river below the dam. Locally rare species that have been found above the dam include
all three species of scoters, Oldsquaw, Red-throated Loon, Brant, Eared Grebe,
Great Cormorant, Parasitic Jaeger, and Pacific Loon. This list is certainly not
indicative of the full potential because coverage has been sporadic. Very large
concentrations of ducks have been found fall through spring. Common Mergansers can
be abundant, when water to the north is frozen, and high counts approach 20,000. Large
numbers of Bufflehead, Common Goldeneyes, scaup, and some puddle ducks are also
It is typical for large numbers of gulls to roost directly above the dam when they are
not feeding in the tailrace during generation. In addition, thousands of gulls, especially
Bonaparte's in season, and Ring-billeds, feed on the river. Large numbers of terns also
feed above the dam in spring and fall. Iceland, Glaucous, Thayer's, and Lesser Black-
backed have been seen above the dam, and Common Black-headed has been seen on
several occasions feeding with the Bonaparte's.

Access is a significant problem. On the Harford County side of the river, which is the
same side as the parking lot at the dam, there are two spots. The first is close to the dam
and viewing conditions are somewhat limited. The access is from the extreme left-hand
end of the parking lot at the visitor's center on the north side of Rt. 1, about 100 yards
south of Shuresville Road. Enter the parking lot and stay to the left and proceed to the
bottom of the lot, next to the small maintenance shed. From the corner of the parking lot
you will find a trail down the hill through the woods. It is about 75 yards to the edge of
the river and a small promontory. From this spot it is possible to scope up and down the
river and the light is always good.

The second spot requires some walking. From the visitor's center parking lot, go
south on Rt. 1 (away from the dam) for about one half mile until you see a yellow gate
on your right near the top of the next hill. Park on the side of the road. (DO NOT
BLOCK THE GATE!) Walk around the gate and follow the access road for about one
half mile. The access road goes to a large warning sign for boaters. In front of the sign,
there is an extensive view up river and the light is always good.

The best access to the river is from the Cecil County side of the river. Cross the dam
on Rt. 1 and go to the top of the hill and the traffic light at Rt. 222. Turn left and go
about 1 mile to a left turn (the first left) at Mt. Zoar Road. Follow the road to the small
boat launch. The boat launch is in the mouth of the creek and access to the river here is
poor, requiring clambering over rocks to get to the railroad tracks. Drive past the boat
launch and cross the old metal bridge. The road immediately turns back to the river.
After one-half mile you will see a pull over on the left, with room for two or three cars.
The pullover is the entrance to the old access road to the railroad tracks but is now
blocked by a concrete barrier. Walk around the barrier and down to the railroad tracks,
about 100 feet.

The railroad tracks run along the river for the entire Maryland portion, providing
excellent views. The disadvantage is that the light is often poor and you will be looking
into the sun at some angles. The advantage is that with a viewing field of almost 180
degrees, at least half the river will be in decent to excellent light. You can walk either
north as far as the Pennsylvania line or south as far as the dam. Just north of this access,
and across the river, is the mouth of Glen Cove and large numbers of gulls and terns
frequently feed there. Many will be on the other, inaccessible side of the river and
require a scope, but there will rarely be a shortage of birds to look at in any season
except summer. It is from this location that the Parasitic Jaeger and the Pacific Loon
were observed.

The conditions that produce the best birds are northeast winds and occasional rain
from mid-October through November. It is under these conditions that scoters, Brant,
and Red-throated Loons are most frequently seen, and accounts for the only jaeger
record, a single Parasitic harassing gulls. It was also under those conditions that more
than 700 Red-throated Loons were found on one day, the highest inland count in the
history of the state.

Other species:.

Shorebirds: Conowingo Dam is one of the best places to find shorebirds in Harford
County, more of a testament to the lack of habitat here than to the good numbers at the
dam. In late summer and fall, on days when there is little or no generation, shorebirds
can be found on the rock bars below the large island opposite the parking lot. Often this
requires walking the trail down river from the parking lot. Numbers are never large but
persistent searching over the past five years has turned up a good list, including
American Golden-Plover, Short-billed Dowitcher, Ruddy Turnstone, Stilt
Sandpiper, Dunlin, White-rumped Sandpiper, Wilson's Phalarope, and Sanderling.
The birds are often difficult to find in the rocks and the effort requires a good scope.

Waterfowl: The river holds good numbers of ducks fall through spring. The birds
most frequently found below the dam are Mallard, Black Duck, Common Goldeneye,
and Bufflehead. They are scattered the length of the river and the largest numbers are
frequently found by walking the trail at the south end of the parking lot. A favorite spot
for puddle ducks is in the rocks directly across from the base of the dam. Except when
the water is extremely high, there are always Mallards and Black Ducks there, and it is
common to find other species mixed in, especially Northern Pintail, American
Wigeon, Green-winged Teal, and Gadwall. All of the regularly occurring puddle ducks
have been found. Hooded Mergansers favor this area also. All of the regularly
occurring diving ducks have been found below the dam and Common Mergansers
move from above to below all day in winter. Red-breasted Mergansers are regular but
scarce above and below the dam in migration and winter. A Harlequin Duck spent time
around the rocks and the large island one winter and another was seen in early spring.
Canada Geese are fairly common above and below the dam at all seasons. Four swans,
at least one of which was a Trumpeter, spent much of the winter of 1998-99 in the river
below the dam, occasionally moving above the dam or farther down river. They were
most frequently seen in the rocks directly across from the pavilion. Like all the
waterfowl that favored the rocks, they were sometimes hard to find and viewing birds
there requires a good scope. Although no bands were seen, it is possible the birds
originated from the ongoing release programs in the eastern Great Lakes.

Other goodies: A fair list of non-gull rarities has been reported from the dam and the
trail below the parking lot. A sampling includes: Brown Pelican, Harlequin Duck,
Great Cormorant, Mississippi Kite, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Royal Tern,
Peregrine Falcon, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Common Raven, Western Tanager,
Mourning Warbler, and Lincoln's Sparrow. Both Eastern Screech-Owl and Great
Horned Owl nest along the river and can be heard at dusk and dawn some days. One to
two Peregrine Falcons have spent the winter at the dam since 1997-98. They are most
frequently seen sitting in the superstructure on top of the dam or chasing and catching
Rock Doves in front of the dam. When not actively hunting, they can be very difficult to
pick out.

Spring and fall: The trail below the parking lot in an excellent place to look for
flocks of migrants in the spring and fall. Large numbers of warblers, vireos, and
flycatchers have been found on some days. Huge swallow flocks begin forming in late
summer, sometimes exceeding 10,000. Careful scrutiny has turned up one or two Cliff
Swallows every fall.

Summer: Great Blue Herons nest in the woods across from the parking lot.
Prothonotary Warblers are numerous on the trail below the dam. Warbling Vireos are
common nesters, as are Eastern Kingbird, Orchard and Baltimore Orioles, Northern
Parula, and other riparian species. Wild Turkeys nest in the woods south of the dam
and are heard on occasion. The same is true for Pileated Woodpecker.

Terns: Numbers begin to build in late summer. Large numbers of Forster's Terns
can be seen in the spring and fall and fall numbers can exceed 1000 some years. A few
Common Terns are found every fall and spring. Black Tern has appeared in very small
numbers most falls. Least Tern has been found once. Caspian Terns are regular in
spring and fall. Royal Tern, rare this far north in the Bay and inland, has been recorded
once in the fall.

Cormorants: Large numbers of Double-crested Cormorants can now be found in

all but the coldest months. They have increased substantially in the past decade and
counts now regularly exceed 500 in the fall. In late fall Great Cormorant has been
found the past four years in the flocks of Double-cresteds. It is anticipated that nesting
by Double-crested, in the Great Blue Heron colony, is only a matter of time.

Future highlights: There are a number of birds that observers have anticipated at
the dam but that have not yet been recorded. All the gulls that have been recorded in
Maryland except for Yellow-legged, Ross', Black-tailed, and Sabine's have been found
and Sabine's is definitely on the watch list. So is the North American race of Common
Gull (Short-billed Gull). It has also surprised observers that there is only one jaeger
record and it is assumed more will be found eventually. In an invasion year the dam is a
fine place for a Snowy Owl to take up residence. Rarer birds that are on the watch list
include Arctic Tern, Barrow's Goldeneye, Ivory Gull, Gull-billed Tern, American
Oystercatcher, White Pelican, King Eider, and Sandwich Tern. All have some history in
the upper Bay or north of the dam in Pennsylvania.

Coverage: There are gullwatchers at the base of the dam nearly every Saturday and
Sunday from November through February. Coverage during the week is irregular, as is
coverage at other times of the year. Eagle watchers are present nearly every weekend
throughout the year. They rarely pay attention to the other birds but sometimes are
familiar with what has been reported recently. Good birds found at the dam appear on
the Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia, and Central Pennsylvania hot lines.

Information about the status of gulls and other birds at the dam is available from Les
Eastman (410-734-6969; les@birdtreks.com), We would be grateful if visitors noting
any of the more unusual birds would report them to Les Eastman.

More information about the status of birds is available on this web site at the
Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Conowingo Dam.

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This page was last updated - 05/01/2008 13:27:48