Nine miles from the Chesapeake Bay and 45 miles from Baltimore sits the Conowingo Dam. When it was completed in 1928, the power generated from holding back the lower Susquehanna River made it the second-largest hydroelectric power generation effort in the US, following Niagara Falls (today it contributes some 1.6 billion kilowatt hours to the US electric grid; the lake behind it provides drinking water for Baltimore). Thanks to the way the dam is designed to funnel fish through, it’s also become something of a veritable smorgasbord for hungry birds in search of a tasty meal.
The first time Mike Lemery ever saw a wild Bald Eagle was at New York's Cohoes Falls in 2013. Since the emblematic bird, removed from the Endangered Species List in 2007, has begun to bounce back, they've started gathering at the dam every year as fall turns to winter. Having become captivated by the raptors, Lemery knew he had to go see them there.
At the dam, they feast effortlessly. After the fish pass through the dam thanks to a "fish elevator" that was installed about 15 years ago, they emerge a bit stunned. To a casual observer, the fish appear to be dead. In the moments before they retain their normal vigor and anti-predator defenses, they make easy pickings for a hungry raptor.
As evident in the video above, the eagles are a delight to watch. "They command the attention of everything around it. Every animal, every bird takes notice when an eagle flies in," says Lemery. "It's so graceful and powerful at the same time. It catches your attention like something I've never seen before." He was so inspired that he entered his short film about Bald Eagle behavior at the dam in this year's "Wild to Inspire" short film competition at the Sun Valley Film Festival. The film, Conowingo Dam Bald Eagles, was selected as one of four finalists.
As a finalist, Lemery was flown to Sun Valley, Idaho by Nat Geo WILD, which sponsors the competition. His film, along with those of the other finalists, was screened before a packed theater as an opening for Bryan Christy's investigative documentary Warlords of Ivory, which aired last autumn on National Geographic Channel. (Full disclosure: I served as a judge for the competition the last two years.) Lemery, whose day job is producing videos for an advertising agency in New York, says that being selected as a finalist gives him the confidence to expand his film into a longer, feature-length documentary about the recovery and future prospects of these iconic birds of prey.