Friday, October 7, 2011


My introduction to Bill Vanko was this excerpt from an email he sent to me a week or two ago:

My name is Bill Vanko. I’m a reporter for WBAL Radio in Baltimore, but when I’m not on the air I generally have a camera in my hand and am out in the field slogging through swamps and forests. I’m also a friend of Bob Cammarata [author of several of our popular stories-Michelle], with whom I’ve spent many enjoyable days wandering the byways of Maryland chasing bugs and reptiles. 

Bob suggested that I submit a piece I had written about the [Relentless-ma]  pursuit of the perfect eagle picture. Each year in October and November scores of bald eagles converge on the Conowingo Dam in northeastern Maryland to enjoy the world’s largest sushi bar as fish congregate in the warm waters at the base of the dam. The aggregation of eagles brings out a horde of bird watchers and photographers, some of whom come armed with tens of thousands of dollars worth of high-end photo equipment. It’s a toss-up which is more interesting, watching the birds, or watching the people who are watching the birds. I’ve tried to convey the spirit of the experience in the article “Dam Eagles!” which I’ve taken the liberty to attach to this e-mail. I also have a series of photographs of the eagles and the eagle-watchers, which might be useful to include.
My first reaction to reading Bill's story was, "Wow!  This writing is SO GOOD that I don't even need photos to see everything he describes.  But the photographs are stunning, so we'll take them!  You'll really enjoy "Dam Eagles!"  And let's hope Bill has more stories to share in the future!
  Michelle Alton

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Dam Eagles!  by Bill Vanko

Eagle Eye
It’s the American Bald Eagle’s deep, dark secret. This proud icon of an entire nation was graced with a regal countenance, a classic flight profile, and awe-inspiring predatory abilities, but the eagle was also cursed with one of the wimpiest voices in the animal kingdom.  No fear-provoking avian scream, it is a sound that various observers have described as “ridiculously weak and insignificant,” “shrill and twittering,” and “more of a squeal than a scream.”  But right now the sound that’s echoing off the concrete face of an aging hydro-electric dam in the northeastern corner of Maryland is music to the ears of hundreds of people who have gathered to view one of the largest assemblages of America’s national bird anywhere in the eastern United States.

Each year in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, eagles by the score congregate at the base of the Conowingo Dam which spans the Susquehanna River just south of the Pennsylvania state line.  Thanks to the constant flow of water through the dam’s huge electric generating turbines, the eagles are attracted by the plentiful bounty of large fish and the guarantee of open water even on the coldest of days.  And they, themselves, have become the attraction for a growing number of photographers, birders and families hoping to catch a glimpse of a bird that was on the verge of extinction just a few years ago.

Dam Eagles
It’s a patriotic thing,” says Mary Lynn Rathman, who lives near Reading, PA, and drove more than an hour south to watch the eagles.   “We heard about it on our local radio station.  It’s something that we almost lost, and now they’re coming back. It’s just exciting to see”

As she speaks a pair of adult eagles, instantly recognizable with their luminous white heads and tails, bright yellow beaks, and chocolate brown bodies are engaged in a dog fight of sorts over the river, twisting and turning with surprising agility for birds with a wingspan that may approach 8 feet. Juvenile birds are also in abundance, their dull brown heads still waiting for the white feathers that won’t begin to appear until they reach sexual maturity at about five years of age.

Wind Beneath The Wings
 It’s the very presence of those juveniles that speaks to the eagle’s amazing recovery from the brink of extinction. In the early 1960’s scientists estimated there were fewer than 500 pairs of nesting eagles left in the lower 48 states. Their population had been decimated by the well-publicized ravages of DDT and other industrial pollutants.  After DDT was banned in 1972, eagle populations began to rise quickly, and today there are believed to be more than 9,000 active nests across those same 48 states. Maryland alone has nearly as many breeding pairs today as the entire country did in the species’ darkest days.  In 2007, the eagle was removed from the federal Endangered Species List.

Dinner on the Fly
Mary Lynn and Dave Rathman came to Conowingo armed only with two pairs of binoculars, and their shared desire to see an eagle on the wing.  But for the small army of photographers gathered by the river, the trip to Conowingo is a visit to a photographic Valhalla.

For much of the past 50 years, photographers hoping to catch a shot of an eagle in flight would have to travel to distant, remote places where the birds had managed to establish a precarious foothold despite their declining numbers. Today, it’s just a matter of parking your car in the lot at the base of the dam, moving your tripod a few feet to the fence at the edge of the water, and waiting.

Eagle Watchers
“I’ve been here seven of the last nine days,” says one bearded tripod-toter.  And while some armchair photographers carry only small point and shoot cameras to document their eagle encounters, others come armed with pricey cameras equipped with long, ultra-expensive telephoto lenses that are pointed into the sky like a battery of anti-aircraft guns, protecting against squadrons of avian invaders.

Diving Eagle
Burke Seim, who owns Service Photo, one of the last remaining independent camera stores in Baltimore, simply shakes his head when asked about the photographers’ willingness to spend so much. “I ask them why they want this expensive lens, and they tell me…to shoot eagles.”  It’s a refrain he’s hearing more and more these days as word of Conowingo’s plethora of willing subjects filters through the photographic community.
“A little over seven thousand dollars,” says Charlie Lentz, a retired banker, when asked how much his 500mm lens cost.  Lentz jokes his wife warned him that the actual cost to the familily’s  bottom line would be much more expensive.

 “It’s really going to cost you 14 (thousand),” Lentz says she told him. “If you spend seven, then I’m spending seven!”   But Lentz is quick to add, “She was just kidding….I think.”

Lentz’s outlay may still be a bargain compared to some of the other dedicated photographers lining the river’s edge whose combination of high-end digital camera bodies and lenses can easily mean they have more than $20,000 perched atop their tripods.

Eagle in a Hurry
Having all of those photographers gathered together in one flock can also provoke some serious lens envy. “No question about it,” says Lentz.  “You got a 500(mm), you want a 600, and there’s a couple of 800s that float around here occasionally. You never have enough.  All it takes is money.”

For the photographic horde, most of the day is spent playing a waiting game, as the birds they’re after remain tantalizingly just out of lens-reach on rocky outcrops several hundred yards across the river.  But when an eagle on the wing finally approaches the photographic phalanx, there is an almost deafening cacophony of clicks and pops from the high-speed shutters clicking into action and taking as many as 6 or 10 shots per second.

Head On

The Grab
On the Prowl
“Sometimes I come up here and take a thousand photos a day,” says Lentz, who knows most of those will be out of focus, poorly composed, or improperly exposed.  “If you go home and you have one good shot you feel at least it’s been a successful trip.”

And then, as the light begins to fade, and the photographers begin to collapse their tripods and pack up for the trip home, Lentz repeats the photographic mantra that will have many of them standing in the same spot tomorrow. “What keeps you coming back is constantly trying to get that shot that you have difficulty getting…the shot of a lifetime.”
  All photography by Bill Vanko /


Bill Vanko's Bio:

Bill Vanko is an award-winning reporter and broadcaster whose profession is news, but whose passion is photography.
Trained as a zoologist, he made a fortuitous wrong turn on the way to the unemployment line, and launched a career in broadcasting instead.. Since then his assignments as a network and local news anchor and reporter have carried him all around the world to places where news was being made. And always, he took his camera along.
Bill’s love for the natural world around us endures in his collection of more than 30 thousand photographs of bugs, birds, bats, snakes, sharks, squirrels, flowers, fish, friends and anything else that will sit still long enough for him to press the shutter button.
He is the co-anchor of Maryland’s Morning News on WBAL Radio (1090AM) in Baltimore, and can be heard each weekday morning beginning at 5am.
You can see more of his photographs at his web site: .

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Bob Cammarata said...

WTG, Bill!

Terrific story and photos and, as expected, professionally written!

It's true that Conowingo brings out the masses.
I remember once during a prime-time weekend that it was difficult to find a place to park.

I hope you intend to stick around to share more of your adventures.

Joe DiGilio said...

Excellent story & eagle images Bill (Head On & Diving Eagle are my favorites). You must use some pricy glass yourself; these are tack sharp. I'm thinking of paying these DAMN EAGLES a visit. Thanks for the tip.

Dave Phalen said...

Terrific story...fantastic photos!!

R G Rose said...

interesting story and very good photos.

Anonymous said...

Awesome photo's!! Tammy

Ellen H said...

I live in MD, so I plan to visit Conowingo in the fall. Excellent writing and fabulous photos.