Conowingo Dam / Fisherman’s Park (Harford County Side)
2569 Shure’s Landing Road, Darlington, MD 21034
(410) 457-2426 | (888) 457-4067
No birding tour of Maryland is complete without a trip to Conowingo Dam. The Dam spans the Susquehanna River between Harford and Cecil Counties in northeastern Maryland. Fisherman’s Park (about 100 acres) offers public access near the foot of the dam on the Harford County side (west bank of the river). Conowingo Dam is an electricity-generating plant operated by Exelon Power Company. When the turbines are in operation, the intake valves suck water and fish through the dam into the river downstream, providing excellent feeding for birds. The water flowing through the dam remains unfrozen during the winter, attracting birds searching for food.
The primary birding attractions at the dam are Bald Eagles, herons, gulls and waterfowl. Large numbers of Bald Eagles gather here starting in October through mid-March, to take advantage of the food availability. In the past, many thousands of gulls also gathered in winter at Conowingo, providing an opportunity to search for rarities. However, the numbers of gulls have declined in recent years for unknown reasons.
Note that Fisherman’s Park is located in Harford County, and the boundary line with Cecil County is partway across the Susquehanna River (see trail map at link at left). That means that birds observed in the rocky area on the far side of the river or in or over the trees on the far side are in Cecil County.
The forested area that fills the triangle between Shuresville Road, Shures Landing Road, and the river is busy with songbirds almost year-round. The edges of this area can be birded from the parking lot at Fisherman’s Park and by walking (very cautiously!) along Shure’s Landing and Shuresville Roads. A section of the 193-mile long Mason-Dixon Trail traverses this area: see trail map at link at left as well as map and instructions at http://masondixontrail.wixsite.com/mdts/map-6-2012-update-1.
The Mason-Dixon Trail crosses US Route 1 and continues north along the west side of the river, all the way to the Pennsylvania State Line (about 7 miles from Fisherman’s Park) and beyond. The northbound section of the Mason Dixon Trail can be accessed from near the Conowingo Dam Visitor Center, located on the north side of US Route 1 just west of the dam (Visitor Center address is 4948 Conowingo Rd, Conowingo, MD 21918 – see trail map at link at left). Ask at the Visitor Center for directions to the trail-head. The Mason-Dixon Trail is marked by blue blazes and identified by small circular metal discs with the trail logo. The trail passes through beautiful forest with many wildflowers among the understory and ground cover, and can be quite birdy in spring. The areas around Glen Cove Marina and Broad Creek Marinas are particularly productive and offer viewpoints of so-called Conowingo Lake, the water reservoir above the dam.
Fisherman’s Park is the northern terminus of a foot-trail, part of the Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway, usually called simply the Wildflower Trail, which runs south along the west bank of the river for about 3 miles, ending at the Deer Creek Picnic Area in Susquehanna State Park. The trail goes through river bottom forest and wetland areas, with intermittent views of the river. There are several Bald Eagle nests visible from the trail. Prothonotary Warblers also nest here. The trail is famous for the wildflowers that blanket the rocky cliffs on the west side of the trail in early spring: Virginia Bluebells, Dutchman’s Breeches, Drooping Trillium, Wild Ginger, and other species.
Conservation Note: Conowingo Dam is at the nexus of complicated issues involving its role in trapping (or not) sediment and polluted runoff flowing into the Chesapeake Bay, and these issues are heightened by the effects of climate change in bringing more rain and stronger storms to the Susquehanna Watershed. Jeff Holland has written eloquently of the issues facing Conowingo Dam in What’s Up – Annapolis Magazine. The article’s author, Jeff Holland, is an Annapolis environmentalist who formerly served as the West and Rhode Riverkeeper and was a member of the Chesapeake Bay Program Citizens Advisory Committee.
There are separate eBird hotspots for these areas in the vicinity of the dam:
Although Conowingo is best known for gulls and eagles, it hosts a wide diversity of birds, with over 220 species reported on eBird. The county line between Harford and Cecil County is about halfway across the river, running parallel to the shores and skirting the northeast edge of Rowland Island, the long, narrow island just south of the dam, with a couple of power-line towers on it. A lot of the birds may be on the Cecil County side, particularly waterfowl swimming through channels in the extensive rocky area on the Cecil shore; gulls and eagles roosting on the rocks; herons, egrets, Ospreys and eagles in the trees; and eagles, Ospreys, and other raptors on the power-line towers. There is no public access to the dam from the Cecil County side, but a view of the river can be obtained from the Octoraro River Trail at Conowingo Park in Cecil County.
Bald Eagles are the big story at Conowingo Dam and attract many visitors. A portion of the eagles seen here are nesting individuals; there are nests up and down the river, including some in trees on islands in the river. Some eagles are present year-round but begin arriving in greater numbers in mid-October and remain through mid-March. High counts for a single winter day may exceed 250 individuals. Look everywhere for eagles: flying overhead, perched in trees on the opposite shore, in trees at Fisherman’s Park, on the power towers on the island and across the river, on rocks below the dam, and all along the length of the river. Very rarely, a Golden Eagle may drop in but they usually do not linger.
Ospreys also nest here, in abundance, and are present from March through September. There are usually large numbers of Black and Turkey Vultures festooning the metal superstructure above the dam and perhaps congregating on the ground in the parking lot; the proportions vary but as of December 2019, the Black Vultures far outnumber the Turkey Vultures. A nesting pair of Peregrine Falcons also hangs out in the metal superstructure above the dam and can be seen chasing Rock Pigeons.
Gulls may be present from December through February. The gulls, like the eagles, can be everywhere – in the air, on the rocks, and swimming in the water. A favorite perch for gulls is the wing-wall that projects outward from the dam (see trail map at link at left); any gulls lined up there are easy to scope and check for rarities. There have been occasional sightings of rare gulls such as Iceland, Sabine’s, and Black-legged Kittiwake, among many others.
A Great Blue Heron rookery can be seen on the Cecil side of the Susquehanna, directly opposite Fisherman’s Park. The rookery is active in the warm months. In winter, large numbers of Great Blue Herons and a few Black-crowned Night-Herons can be found roosting on the large island just south of the dam (Rowland Island) – look carefully on the rocky sides of the island and on the level ground at the top of the island, and in the trees. Herons will also be dispersed among the large rocks just below the dam, year-round.
Bird along the edge of the woods adjacent to Fisherman’s Park and the sycamore trees along the riverbank, watching for orioles, vireos, warblers, and flycatchers in spring and summer. In winter look for woodpeckers, kinglets, Brown Creepers, and Winter Wrens. These birds can also be found along the Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway Trail/Wildflower Trail south of Fisherman’s Park. The trail is also great for breeding flycatchers, vireos, warblers, and orioles in late spring and summer, and bustles with migrating songbirds in fall and spring.
Fun fact: Conowingo Dam is 4,648 feet long from end-to-end – almost 4 times longer than Hoover Dam, which is only 1,244 feet long. However, Hoover Dam at 726 feet tall is far taller than Conowingo, which is 94 feet tall from the base to the top. ◾ A large portion of the Susquehanna River and its shores, from north of the Pennsylvania border to Port Deposit on the Cecil County side and to I-95 on the Harford County side, has been designated as the Susquehanna River Important Bird Area (IBA) by the National Audubon Society. ◾ Conowingo Eagle Day is held in November. See http://www.supportconowingodam.com/newsevents/conowingo. ◾ Tours of the hydroelectric generating station inside the dam, and the fish ladder, may be available; call Visitor Center for details. ◾ There is a swimming pool at the Visitor Center, open to the public with a daily fee or seasonal membership; see details at https://www.lighthouse-pools.com/conowingo-pool/. ◾ The Cecil Bird Club offers an annual Eagle Watch Day at Conowingo in late November or early December; the club sets up an information table and has scopes available to view the birds. See the Cecil Bird Club calendar at https://cecilbirds.wordpress.com/field-trips/. ◾ The local chapter of the Maryland Ornithological Society is the Harford Bird Club, which offers field trips and meetings with informative programs, all free and open to the public.
- Outdoors Maryland from Maryland Public Television, Episode 3101: The segment “The Eagle’s Return” features the gathering at Conowingo Dam of photographers who specialize in taking photos of Bald Eagles. The segment has outstanding video footage of the eagles. The segment also covers MD DNR’s Scales and Tales program and the Eagle Nest Monitoring Program being coordinated by the Maryland Bird Conservation Partnership (MBCP), with footage of MOS’s own Chris Eberly, Director of MBCP. Other segments in this episode are “Pilot Park,” about a weekend radio-controlled airplane flying club in Middle River in Baltimore County and “Ice Skippers,” about ice boating on Deep Creek Lake in Garrett County.
- Although it’s not about birds, the Maryland Public Television special “Conowingo Dam: Power on the Susquehanna” has interesting vintage footage of the building of the dam in the 1920s and also covers the dam’s impact on the communities on the river.
- The Conowingo Visitor Center has a Facebook page which gives updates on the conditions and status at the Dam and features outstanding photos of eagles.
There is ample free parking at Fisherman’s Park from the boat ramp to the observation platform, and at the Visitor Center on the north side of US Route 1. On weekends during the winter peak eagle season, the parking lot at Fisherman’s Park may be filled to capacity, and in that case there is remote parking along the west side of Shuresville Road just south of Village Road, and the power company runs free shuttle buses between there and Fisherman’s Park.
From I-95 at Havre de Grace: take Exit 89 for MD Route 155/Level Road. Take MD Route 155 north for 2.8 miles, then turn right (north) onto MD Route 161/Darlington Road. Continue for 5.1 miles and turn right onto Castleton Road to stay on MD Route 161. In just 0.2 miles, turn right (east) onto US Route 1/Conowingo Road. Just before the dam, turn right (south) onto Shuresville Road, and then a sharp left onto Shure’s Landing Road. Shure’s Landing road will take you downhill toward the river and it ends at Fisherman’s Park. Most people like to start birding close to the base of the dam and then work south toward the start of the Wildflower Trail, which is at the south end of Fisherman’s Park. The trail-head for the Wildlflower Trail is to your right as you reach the river from Shure’s Landing Road.
From Baltimore: It is also possible to reach Conowingo Dam by taking US Route 1 all the way from the Baltimore Beltway/I-695. Just head north/east and when you near the dam, turn right onto Shuresville Road and follow directions as above.
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