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Eagle-Watching in Lower Susquehanna River, Lancaster and York counties


A Lower Susquehanna River Snapshot

Facilities: Department of Conservation and Natural Resources' Bureau of State Parks; Exelon Hydro's Muddy Run Recreation Park; PP&L's Holtwood Environmental Preserve; Lancaster County's Chickies Rock County Park. Conveniences vary.

Driving Directions: To Conejohela Flats: From Harrisburg, Take Interstate 283 South to the Swatara Exit (441). Turn left onto State Route 441 south. Follow Route 441 south to Columbia. In Columbia, stay on 441 south by turning right on Locust St. and left on Front Street. After 3 miles, Route 441 turns into Water St. Follow Water Street around a 90 degree turn to the left, then turn right on River Rd. Turn right onto Blue Rock Road. Parking is on the left just before the tracks. The boat launch is across the active tracks. Be very careful about crossing these tracks.

To Holtwood Environmental Preserve: From Lancaster: Take State Route 272 south to Buck, turn right onto State Route 372. Follow 372 west for 6 miles and turn right onto River Road. Travel a half mile and turn left onto Old Holtwood Road. In another half mile turn left onto New Village Rd. The Holtwood Environmental Center is the first building on the left. From York: Take State Route 74 south. Turn left onto State Route 372 and cross the Susquehanna River. Make the first left onto Pinnacle Road. In about one mile, Pinnacle Road turns into New Village Road. The Holtwood Environmental Center is on the right.

To Muddy Run Recreation Area: From Harrisburg: Take Interstate 83 south to exit 6. Take State Route 74 South. Turn left onto State Route 372 East. Follow 372 for 5 miles and turn right onto Hilldale Road. Make a left onto Bethesda Church Road and go west. Follow this into the Park. From Lancaster: Take State Route 272 south to Buck. Make a right onto State Route 372. Follow 372 for 3.5 miles to the park on the left.

To Susquehanna State Park: From Lancaster: Take State Route 272 south to State

Route 372. Follow 372 west to Susquehannock Drive. Make a left onto Susquehannock Drive to Park Road and the entrance.

To Chickie's Rock County Park: From Lancaster: Take the Lincoln Highway, State Route 30 West, 10 miles to the Columbia/State Route 441 exit. From the exit, turn right onto 441 North. To reach the following destinations within the park, follow these directions from State Route 441 North: Breezyview Overlook: Go 0.35 miles north; turn left (west) at sign; bear left at "Y" in drive by Little People Day Care and continue to circular paved parking lot. Chickies Rock Overlook Trailhead: Go 0.90 miles north; turn left (west) into parking lot immediately past crest of hill. Old Chickies Hill Road (Clayton B. Shenk Trailhead): Go 1.2 miles north; make hard right (southeast) onto Old Chickies Hill Road; continue to large trailhead sign and off-road parking within ¼ mile on right. Chickies Creek Day Use Area: Go 1.5 miles north; just after crossing bridge at bottom of hill, turn right (east) onto Long Lane; continue to entrance at large stone farmhouse on right; park in small level lot between farmhouse and bank barn on right or adjacent to loop drive surrounding pavilion. Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission boat launch: Go 1.65 miles north to Furnace Road; turn left (west) onto Furnace Road and continue to Robert K. Mowrer Drive; turn left (west) and cross under arched railroad bridge to parking lot and boat launch.

Viewing Directions: Access points and observation lookouts provide views of the river. Eagles may be spotted from any of these vantage points.

Best Eagle Viewing Season: All Seasons. A major area for nesting, migration and wintering.

Activities at the sites: Hunting, fishing, boating, birding, hiking, climbing, camping.

Other Wildlife: Waterfowl, loons, grebes, shorebirds, gulls, terns, wading birds, raptors, kingfishers, songbirds, mammals.

Where to go, what to look for

The Susquehanna River flows from its headwaters at Otsego Lake near Cooperstown, New York, to the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. With hundreds of tributaries, the river's watershed includes 27,000 square miles in Pennsylvania, New York and Maryland. This 444-mile long river provides critical habitat for many native plants and animals. It is a vital corridor for migrating birds, breeding birds and wintering birds — a vibrant route along the Atlantic Flyway.

During the 1980s, Haldeman Island, a Susquehanna River island in Dauphin County, served as one of two release sites for the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Bald Eagle Recovery Project. With funding from the federal Endangered Species Fund and the Richard King Mellon Foundation, as well as cooperation from Canadian wildlife officials, the Game Commission's Eagle Recovery Team captured young eagles in Saskatchewan over a period of seven years. The young eagles were transported to the hack sites, where trained attendants fed and monitored the wild eaglets in specially designed towers until they were ready to fledge at about 12 weeks old, being careful not to habituate the young eagles to humans. Over the course of the project, 88 young eagles were released into Pennsylvania with the hope that the birds would return when mature to nest in the Susquehanna River valley and throughout the northeast. They did!

It is common to see bald eagles along much of the Susquehanna River in every season of the year. This fertile river, with its wooded hillsides, broad bottomlands and mix of islands and riffle areas, provides eagles with a readily available food supply, suitable nesting territories and adequate space. The Lower Susquehanna River serves as an extension of the large nesting eagle population of the Chesapeake Bay. The successful programs in Pennsylvania and neighboring states have helped each other's programs flourish. Eagles are flying freely from one state to the next, mixing with each other, and augmenting to the regional population.

Several eagle pairs return annually to nest along the Susquehanna and its tributaries. These nesting eagles are often spotted flying to and from foraging areas as they hunt for fish to take back to the nest. During spring and early summer mature eagles frequent the sky over the river and often over the highways running along east and west shores. Immature eagles, which have not established nesting territories and lack the white head and tail of a four- to five-year-old adult bird, also inhabit the river valley during spring and summer. They, too, soar on long, broad wings held flat and steady./p>

Migrating eagles begin appearing along the Susquehanna in late summer. On the lower Susquehanna River, eagles congregate in fall and winter. A large concentration of eagles fish and scavenge for shad, channel catfish and carp at the base of the Conowingo Dam in Maryland. Between November and February, dozens of eagles can be seen from a bird-watching platform at the dam. Eagles also can be seen from various lookouts and boat launches along the river and reservoirs nearby. These same locations are great places to view migrating waterfowl, loons, herons, egrets, cormorants, gulls, terns, kingfishers and swallows that are strongly associated with water. Several species of gull are seen regularly along the river including ring-billed, herring, Bonaparte's and greater black-backed. More lesser black-backed, little and black-headed gulls have been seen by attentive observers in recent years.

Behind the dam and upriver a few miles, the Conowingo Pond in Pennsylvania is a good place to see wintering eagles, especially near the Norman Wood Bridge. This stretch of river maintains open water in winter because of the turbulence caused by the Muddy Run Power Plant. Lake Aldred is created by Holtwood Dam.

From the river's edge, the wooded hillsides rise steeply to nearly 400 feet above the water. Susquehannock State Park sits on the river hills on the west shore. Hawk Point and Wissler Run Overlook, two cliff-top views of the river, offer a chance at spotting eagles on the river below. Both turkey and black vultures are seen here. Several park trails climb through moist glens with rhododendron, holly and mountain laurel. Many other birds are found along the trails. In winter, woodpeckers like the yellow-bellied sapsucker, northern flicker, pileated, red-bellied, hairy and downy are prevalent. The Carolina chicka-dee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, Carolina wren and northern cardinal are year-round residents. Spring brings migrating warblers, vireos, kinglets and other birds through the park. Spring also is a good time to find the yellow-billed cuckoo, eastern wood-pewee, eastern phoebe, blue-gray gnatcatcher, gray catbird, yellow-throated vireo, red-eyed vireo, wood thrush, black-and-white warbler, worm-eating warbler, American redstart, common yellowthroat, Louisiana waterthrush, Kentucky warbler, scarlet tanager, rose-breasted grosbeak, indigo bunting and Baltimore oriole. In the evening, a careful listener may hear a screech-owl here.

The state park is part of the Lower Susquehanna River Gorge Important Bird Area, recognized by the Audubon Society for its value to birds. Muddy Run Reservoir is included in this Important Bird Area. On the 100-acre lake and its surrounding woodlands and rolling fields, 250 species of birds — including 23 warbler species — have been recorded. Large numbers of tundra swans, snow geese and American black ducks show up here to feed and rest as they migrate north in late winter. Eagles and ospreys nest here and eagles gather in fall and winter.

The Holtwood Environmental Preserve encompasses Lake Aldred above the Holtwood Dam. The Holtwood Dam Overlook on the west shore and Face Rock Overlook over the east end are observation points with views of the dam, power plant and river. Just above the dam, where the river bends, is Pinnacle Overlook. This overlook is very scenic and provides a wide view of Lake Aldred. In addition to eagles, cerulean warblers, worm-eating warblers, Kentucky warblers and yellow-throated warblers inhabit the Holtwood Preserve. Yellow-billed and black-billed cuckoos are found in the thick woodland edges. The Louisiana waterthrush and northern parula may be found in the moist ravines of Kelly's Run natural area. South of Kelly's Run, visitors can find Face Rock Overlook for another view.

The Conejohela Flats, along the lower Susquehanna River, also is designated as an Important Bird Area. These mud flats and a series of small brushy islands are exposed as the Safe Harbor Dam lowers Lake Clark to generate electricity. Bald eagles fish and rest at the Conejohela Flats. The abundance and variety of birds on this section of the river is staggering. Shorebirds show up by the thousands during migration to feed on the mud flats. At least 35 shore-bird species have been recorded here. Among the most regularly observed in migration are the American golden, black-bellied, and semipalmated plovers; spotted sandpiper; stilt sandpiper; greater and lesser yellowlegs; short-billed and long-billed dowitchers; dunlin; sanderlings; ruddy turnstones; and several "peeps" including semipalmated, western white-rumped, least, Baird's and pectoral sandpipers. It is one of the few places where the buff-breasted sandpiper can be seen in the state. Spring and early fall provide the greatest number and variety of shorebirds. Many gulls and waterfowl also congregate on Conehohela Flats during migration.

Chickies Rock County Park affords views in all directions except east, so it is an excellent place to view the Lower Susquehanna River valley. The name for the park was derived from the Native American word "Chiquesalunga," which meant "place of the craw-fish." The rock is actually a massive outcrop of quartzite that towers 200 feet above the river and represents the largest exposed anticline in the East. This 442-acre park has many natural and human history features. It includes Chickies Creek and Donegal Creek, a trout fishery, as well as various remnants of the iron industry, the canal age and railroad era.

The vantage points at Chickies Rock offer magnificent views of the river valley and York County, even Marietta, across the river. From here eagles, waterfowl (especially tundra swans and snow geese) and migrating songbirds are easily viewed. There are trails in the park that give the opportunity to walk in wooded areas with a variety of bird species. There is some opportunity to see breeding and migrating raptors at Chickies Rock, including ospreys, red-tailed hawks, broad-winged hawks, red-shouldered hawks, Cooper's hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, peregrine falcons, merlin and American kestrels. Both black and turkey vultures are easily viewed here. Along the trails, birders can find songbirds, such as the yellow warbler, northern parula, common yellowthroat, yellow-breasted chat and indigo bunting.

There are other places to access or view the Susquehanna River. Some alternatives are the Falmouth Access area near Three Mile Island and the Lancaster-Dauphin County line along Route 441. Please see the Lancaster County Bird Club's website for directions. There are other boat launches and overlooks at Shenk's Ferry (York County), Pequea, York Furnace, Long Level and Peach Bottom. Information on boat launches can be found on the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's website and maps.

For additional information, contact:

Department of Conservation and Natural Resources' Bureau of State Parks, Susquehannock State Park, 1880 Park Drive, Drumore, PA 17518. Telephone: 717-432-5011.

Holtwood Environmental Preserve, 9 New Village Road, Holtwood, PA 17532. Telephone: 800-354-8383.

Muddy Run Recreation Area, 172 Bethesda Church Road, Holtwood, PA 17532. Telephone: 717-284-4325.

Lancaster County Parks Department, Chickies Rock County Park, 1 Furnace Road, Marietta, PA 17547. Telephone: 717-299-8215.

By Kathy Korber and Doug Gross
Safe Harbor Dam Vista