Hiking Pennsylvania: Bald Eagle Sightings and the Susquehanna River

(Photo by Carl Ewald, TerraMar Adventures)
The bald eagle is one of the most majestic and most recognized birds in the world. Though the eagles spent time on the endangered species list until 2007, the species' recover is one of the greatest conservation success stories of our time. Some of us have been lucky enough to see them in the wild, and if you find yourself near the Maryland/Pennsylvania border, especially this time of year, your chances of a sighting go way, way up.

My first bald eagle sighting came on a birding expedition with my 7th grade science teacher, at which point I'd resolved to become an ornithologist when I grew up. The bird was a significant distance away, but with the help of a serious pair of binoculars, I remember being absolutely floored by how beautiful the eagle was.

Though I've since abandoned plans to become an ornithologist, (you need a surplus of patience, which I don't have), I'm still enamored by birds. When friend Carl, founder of Philadelphia's biggest and best outdoor adventure group, invited me on a scouting trip for what he called a "bald eagle hike," I knew I had to go.

Our crew met at Susquehanna State Park in Maryland, a 90 minute drive from Philadelphia, to start the hike. Our destination was the southern terminus of the Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway Trail. The trail is an old railway bed used in the 1920's to transport materials to build the Conowingo Dam. If you're looking for a challenging hike, look elsewhere; it's a completely flat, wide path that extends 2.5 miles from the trailhead in Susquehanna State Park north to the Conowingo Dam. If you're a trail runner, however, it's could be a great route to try. Eventually, the trail will extend 50 miles on both sides of the river, but for now, it's a five mile round trip.

The Stafford flint furnace from across the creek, aka the beehive, the rocket ship, the list goes on...
The trailhead, just off of Stafford Road (here), plays host to what was easily the second-coolest thing we saw that day - the Stafford flint furnace. I nicknamed it "the giant beehive," but according to this, it's all that remains of the once thriving town of Stafford. However, the real reason we were on the trail was to see a few of the hundreds of bald eagles that either call the area home, or pass through while migrating south. 

Out on the (extremely flat, but beautiful) trail.
The Conowingo Dam isn't a destination anyone would typically hike to, but bald eagles and other birds congregate around it to feed. Fish are sucked into the dam's turbines upstream, then released downstream on the other side as the dam produces electricity for the area. It's not great news for the fish, but it's an ideal place for birds of prey to feast. The fish that don't fall victim to the dam are still easy prey due to the area's shallow waters. We saw our first bald eagle in a tree about an hour into the hike, and the closer we got to the dam, the more eagles we saw. 

When we reached the dam, dozens of photographers with long lenses and tripods dotted the shoreline. It's a wildlife photographer's paradise this time of year, and dam operator Exelon Corporation holds an annual eagle photo contest. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the photographers even help with conservation and banding projects. We spent at least half an hour watching the eagles from a distance, and I spent the rest of the hour and a half walk back to the car wishing I had a better camera. Luckily, local photographer David Lychenheim manages a Facebook page dedicated to the Conowingo eagles for folks like me. But the birds were as majestic and stunning as I can remember.

Despite how easy the hike was, it's a beautiful and easily accessible place to see one of America's most incredible birds. If you're in the area, TerraMar Adventures is doing a second bald eagle hike on January 19, 2013. Have you been to the Conowingo Dam? Have you ever seen a bald eagle? What was it like? Leave a comment!


Nora said…
I'm so glad to find an adventure blog that is nearby! I have only ever hiked the Susquehanna on the PA side, and I haven't heard about this eagle hot spot-- I'll have to check it out soon. Thanks for the report!
Katie said…
Nora, so glad you found the blog too! There's so much to do around here, it's pretty awesome. Do you have a favorite hike? Prior to this, I'd only hiked around the Susquehanna on the PA side too...same river, completely different perspective.
Lauren Rains said…
WHen I was in 5th grade I had to my first research report on Bald Eagles. They've been one of my favorites ever since! Also, love the shot of the "extremely flat and beautiful trail" :) - Lauren Rains :)
Katie said…
Glad to hear we have a shared appreciation of the birds, Lauren! I'm a huge Outdoor Minded fan, and appreciate your taking the time to read the post.
gtom said…
On 9/29/13, while crossing the I-95 bridge over the Susquehanna, we saw a pair of Bald Eagles flying low overhead. A first on our many road trips.