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Seeing bald eagles in the wild at Conowingo Dam

PhotoLast year at this time, I went to northern Maryland to visit my brother-in-law, who was dying of liver cancer. He was 71 and tired easily, but he insisted on taking me to a spot where he liked to photograph bald eagles, about an hour's drive away. It was a gift -- he knew how I love driving back roads and seeing new sights.

I took my little Sony CyberShot, the only camera I'd brought since I hadn't expected he'd take me sightseeing. Don, a serious amateur nature photographer, loaded his big camera bag into his truck, and we took off.

Just shy of the  Pennsylvania state line, the Conowingo Dam on the Lower Susquehanna River sucks fish into the intake valves for its turbines and spits them out, sometimes in pieces, downstream. It's like a sushi bar for birds.  Bald eagles congregate there, especially in late fall and early winter. Bird-watchers say the spot draws more bald eagles than any place east of the Mississippi River.

It was a blustery, overcast day. Perhaps a dozen men of retirement age stood along the shore, men with time to wait for that perfect shot of a once-endangered species. They had big cameras with bigger lenses mounted on tripods that looked about to topple in the stiff winds.

We stood there, shivering, watching bald eagles diving for food or perching on power lines. I pointed my little camera at a bird in flight. It was little more than a dot on the screen, but I traced its path with my camera, shooting that black dot every second or so. Then Don handed me his camera with the 400 mm lens. He'd shot plenty of bald eagle photos, he said, and didn't need to take any more today. He wanted me to have this opportunity.

I aimed the lens at an eagle sitting high in a leafless tree and waited. In a few minutes, it took off, and again I traced its flight with the camera, but this time, it was a lot bigger than a dot. Don was thrilled. "You got a shot! Do you know how many times I came here before I got a good shot? And you got it in just a few minutes."

Back at his house, he showed me his best bald eagle shots. They were gorgeous, the detail so fine that if you knew the birds, you'd know which one was Sam and which was Fred. Next to those, my best was pretty pedestrian. Don burned a CD of my photos for me to bring back to Florida.

That was the last time I saw Don. His strength was sapped as much by the treatment as by the cancer, and he never had the energy to return to the Conowingo Dam. When my sister-in-law Kathie called a few months ago to tell me Don had died. I pulled out the CD and chose the best of my bald eagle shots, then blew it up until it filled my computer screen. That's how I'll remember Don: generous, adventurous, in the wild, soaring.

Information: This website by the Exelon Corp, which owns the dam, provides some information, but you'll find more if you google Conowingo and eagles.