Archive for the ‘Birds’ Category

Bald Eagles of Great Falls

Photo Credit: Jason Lewris

The above photo is the culmination of a great day of bald eagle spotting.  On the Virginia side of Great Falls Park, we were fortunate enough to run into local photography enthusiast Jason Lewris, and his camera and steady hand produced this image of a huge nest on nearby Conn Island.  The small patch of white above the rim of the nest is the head of a curious female eagle who is guarding anywhere from one to three eggs.

A great day ended with an image we will always remember, but here’s how it began–on the Maryland side…

Candee and I received an email (about a week ago) stating that the National Park Service was offering a two hour bald eagle seminar at  Great Falls Tavern, followed by an opportunity to check out the nest on the island.  Bud Cline presented an excellent power-point presentation with a number of facts pertaining to the birds.  Did anybody know that bald eagles have a wingspan from 72-90″ and generally weigh anywhere from 10-14 pounds?  Likewise, their nests can be in the vicinity of 8′ wide and 13′ deep, weighing well over one thousand pounds!  Imagine a sub-compact car wedged into the limbs of a Sycamore tree!

Silly goose! We're looking for eagles!


Before Mr. Cline could set up his spotting scope, we had already checked out some geese and blue herons, but the truth is that we hadn’t seen anything yet.  With the scope on 25 power, we were able to see the golden beak and shining white head feathers of the female eagle.

Also, her mate performed a spectacular flyby over the nest, circling it several times before perching in a nearby tree.


Viewing a Bald Eagle on Conn Island

Before leaving, Mr. Cline informed everybody that a different (and perhaps even better) vantage point was available on the Virginia side of Great Falls Park.  We hopped in the car, and that’s where we were fortunate enough to meet Jason.  Bald eagles have been nesting on Conn Island for a number of years, so this isn’t a newsflash, but when the adults start to head out in search of food for the chicks (sometime in March), the result is sure to please bird watchers of all ages.

Great Falls, Virginia side

Dargan Bend

Today we headed for the Dargan Bend area of the C&O Canal for a quick hike.  For those who aren’t familiar with this section, the parking lot is just downstream from mile marker 65.  It’s also the site of a boat ramp in a flat, wide section of the Potomac River.  Heading upstream, there’s more than enough history and scenery to make for an interesting trek.

The Boat Launch at Dargan Bend

This culvert has definitely seen better times!



For starters, the culvert near mile marker 65 is in a state of disrepair, but the erosion offers up proof that keeping a 184.5 mile long park operational is a never-ending fight.  The Potomac’s drainage basin stretches from Highland County, Virginia to Garrett County, Maryland and all points in between.




The Power of Water!



It’s a big river, and when the water is high, it overflows the towpath and many of the canal structures and does a considerable amount of damage.  With this in mind, we weren’t all that surprised to see the familiar orange fencing around a large depression near the culvert.



In fact, being a canal buff can be pretty nerve-wracking during the rainy season.  The C&O Canal Association sends numerous emails to its members every year in regard to flooding, and about all we can do is bite our fingernails and hope for the best.

Speaking of Flooding...look what we found!

They Say Location is Everything! This old lime kiln sat right next to the canal...I'm sure business was good!

From the top looking down....


At about the 65.5 mile section of the towpath, an old lime kiln sits on the canal side.  The C&O ceased operations because of massive flooding in 1924, so we were surprised to learn that the kilns were used until at least 1950.  We’ve all heard the phrase “they don’t build ’em like that anymore,” and maybe there’s something to it.  The entire structure is in immaculate condition, and taking a walk around it is like stepping back in time.



Do you think a bear might be in here?

Inside Looking Out...



The limestone was quarried locally, and the rocky cliffs along the old canal bed show signs of man-made caves and stone removal.  In fact, just beyond the kilns there is a large opening in the rock that goes back approximately fifty feet.





There are numerous drill marks in the wall, and in spite of the fact that it’s an abandoned cave, I can still think of a good use for it:  if I’m ever biking in that area during a hard rain, I know where to ditch the bikes and hide for a while!

An interesting rock that we found right outside of the cave...

We wound up hiking up to mile marker 67 before turning around, but upon our return to the kiln, we found out that humans aren’t the only creatures interested in the history of the C&O and its environs. We were surprised to see a turkey vulture perched on the top of the wall posing for a picture.  We’re always enthused to photograph any type of nature, but seeing a vulture can give one reason to pause.  My first thought was do I really smell that bad, but after that I wondered if it weren’t just plain bad luck to see one of these things.  In the end, however, the vulture turned out to be an amicable fellow, and with our history of nature photography, we’ll take what we can get.

Turkey Vulture on the C&O Canal --or--he had his eye on me!

Having Fun!





We couldn’t resist having a little fun along the way….okay, Candee couldn’t resist!




We even managed to pick up a little bit of trash along the way....Why does she always seem to have all the fun?



In all, Dargan Bend is a great place to take a hike and a good stopping off point on the way to Harpers Ferry.  We might not make it back there for a while, but I’m hoping that the culvert will be in a better state of repair next time.





Even so, it’s a long canal that borders on an often angry river.  A lot can go wrong, but it’s all part of the never ending battle between man and nature.  Maybe that’s what keeps us coming back to the C&O Canal NHP.

Random Canal Pictures (or More Winter Musings)

This isn’t the first time that we’ve done a website or blog pertaining to the C&O Canal, and somewhere along the way we’ve left several pictures scattered around the internet in near oblivion.  Many of these go back to our earliest days on the canal, and some even help to fill our current void of photos and text pertaining to miles 0-50.  These shots bring back a lot of memories.  In fact, I can remember the day that Candee suggested that we should take up biking as a hobby.  It sounded like a good idea, but our first ride between Williamsport and Fort Frederick in 98 degree heat left me wondering about my sanity.  Imagine what I would have missed!

Lockhouse #8

Over the years we have seen a number of interesting sights and creatures.  I can’t say that either of us have fancy camera equipment, so many of the critters we have seen have escaped posterity in a blur.  However, I do have to brag a little: we’re both experts in turtle photography, and on more than one occasion we have managed to capture an image of a Great Blue Heron posing on a wall.  However, one missed opportunity stands out more than the rest.  We were riding on the Western Maryland Rail Trail just above the Devil’s Eyebrow when a rider sped up to us and stammered, “B…b…b…bear over th…th…th…th…there!”  Candee armed herself with her camera, but the bear was long gone.  So…I’ll leave you with a picture that we did manage to get.

Great Blue Heron

Sometimes it’s great being out on the trail.  You never know what you’re going to see.  Other times the river is the star attraction.  For example, in March of 2010 a heavy rain fell on the Potomac Valley, and it melted what was literally feet of snow in the mountains of western Maryland.  Needless to say, the river became very angry and threatened the towns along its banks and the C&O Canal NHP itself.  We headed out to assess the damage, which fortunately was minimal, but one picture stands out…

Generally, it’s about a 15′ drop from the top of the arch at the Sideling Hill Creek Aqueduct to the creek itself, but that day water filled the entirety of the structure.  It was an impressive sight, as was our first ride into Great Falls.  It’s hard to imagine such a large river near a metropolitan area containing a massive and dangerous set of rapids.  I understand that the view is even more impressive from the Virginia side of the river, but the Maryland side isn’t half-bad either!

Great Falls, near the towpath

I guess you could say that the river offers up something new around every bend, and sometimes the floods deposit a thing or two that catches the eye.  When we first started riding, we spent a lot of time parking the bikes and hiking down to the Potomac to check things out.  I particularly like a picture we took of some driftwood right below the mouth of Sideling Hill Creek.

Driftwood along the river

In 2009 and 2011, we completed through-rides from Cumberland to Georgetown, but back in 2006 one of our more anticipated short trips was from Great Falls to the 0 mile marker.  As it turns out, we didn’t find the marker until several years later, but we were fortunate enough to see the canal boat Georgetown plowing through the water.

The Georgetown

Of course, we had no idea how many rangers and volunteers it took to entertain the people or to keep the park in good shape.  We were both surprised and impressed to see volunteers in period attire leading tourists and locals on a boat excursion on the canal.  Oh…and let’s not forget the hard work of the mules.  Back in the day, the success of the canal depended upon them!

Mule power!

The last couple of times that we rolled into Georgetown, it marked the end of a really long three-day bike ride, but back in ’06 it was only the beginning.  We love the canal from Cumberland to DC, and one picture in particular reminds me of the way many of us feel about the canal, towpath, river, and mules that powered the old canal boats…

Canallers best friend!

I can hardly wait for the warm weather to come back!  It will be great going on more rides, taking pictures, and seeing all of the things we’ve missed before.  When your favorite park is 184.5 miles long, it seems like there is something new around every corner!

Single Feather

Hawk? Woodpecker? Owl?

C&O Canal Association Bird Walk

Today Kurt Schwarz of the Maryland Ornithological Society led a bird walk that started at the Cushwa Basin on the C&O Canal.  In spite of a cold rain and a temperature of forty-five degrees, the hike was both enjoyable and productive.  Most people who hike, bike, or jog on the towpath have tunnel vision and often miss out on the subtleties that nature has to offer.   We would generally include ourselves with this crowd, but today was different.  We stopped, looked, listened, and learned plenty of interesting facts about our feathered friends.

What do you see?

Candee was very enthused about the birds, but I have to admit that I did more people watching and was fascinated that Kurt and several others in group easily spotted (and heard) their quarry.  Using binoculars to locate birds truly is a talent in and of itself and takes a little bit of practice.   We learned to spot a fixed landmark near the bird, such as a forked branch or a patch of colorful leaves, and then finding the bird became much easier when peering through the lenses.  If you look through the binoculars first, you will spend the rest of the day scanning the tress while everyone else has spotted their bird and moved on.

We were especially thrilled to see two Bald Eagles flying on the West Virginia side of the Potomac.  Unfortunately, birds are pretty elusive, and without expensive camera equipment, we managed only to get a picture of the Mute Swan and a Mockingbird.

Can you see him?


The Destroyer: Although beautiful, the Mute Swan poses a threat to native wildlife because it competes for food, territory, and nesting areas.


The Mute Swan (Cygus olor) is a non-native species that is frowned upon by many local bird watchers.  This large aggressive bird has a wingspan of up to 2.5 meters, and has been successfully introduced in North America.    The problem is that they generally overgraze on aquatic vegetation and drive other similarly sized native birds (Canada Geese and Trumpeter Swans) off of their nesting grounds.  Watch out!  They’ll even attack people who wander into their territory!



Here’s a list of the birds that we were able to spot today (Kurt saw many more!):

  • Mute Swan
  • Northern Mocking Bird
  • Northern Rough Winged Swallow
  • Great Blue Heron
  • European Starling
  • Killdeer (Will pretend to be wounded to lure predators away from its nest. Its call sounds like Kill-DEEE!)
  • Scarlet Tanager
  • Great Egret
  • Mallard
  • Robin
  • Cardinal: male & female
  • Goldfinch
  • Catbird  (Makes a cat-like mewing sound)
  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak
  • Black-Capped Chickadee (Its call sounds like chick-a-dee-dee-dee.)
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Eastern Pheobe