Back in Missouri, where I’m originally from, seeing a bald eagle is a rare treat. During the winter months the eagles regularly congregate along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers systems, bringing out bird watchers and nature lovers by the hundreds to see maybe a half dozen eagles or so catching a few fish to fatten up on. During the rest of the year however, spotting one of our national birds is difficult to do in those parts. It’s quite the opposite here on Kodiak Island, Alaska, where I currently reside. I see more bald eagles in one day than most people probably see in a lifetime. And during the winter months, I regularly see dozens and dozens of them gathered together like groups of pigeons. It’s quite a sight! Even though seeing so many of these incredible creatures is a common occurrence for most who live here, I never get tired of it!The mighty, majestic bald eagle is a symbol of all that is free, wild and fierce! Watching them in action is never dull. There is just something about that intense look in their eyes, the way they soar gracefully through the mountaintops with those huge wings, their savvy survival instincts and amazing predatory skills! But make no mistake; the natural world is not a Disney movie. Survival of the fittest is the reality, and the “law of the jungle” certainly applies to our national birds as well. I have to admit, seeing these beautiful raptors covered in blood, stuffing their white heads inside the body cavity of a road-killed animal and ripping the slimy intestines out, is not quite the regal imagery that usually comes to mind. Even more see, seeing eagles eating out of dumpsters, preying on cute little bunny rabbits, dogs, and other small fury critters makes one realize that mother nature is not always so sweet. Nonetheless, once again, there is never a dull moment when watching eagles. Have a look at my “Eagles of Alaska” gallery at my website www.wildrevelation.com and you will see what I mean.
Know your subject
Now let’s get down to business and talk about photographing these big birds. Many of the same wildlife photography principles that apply to any other creature also apply to eagles. For starters, get to know your subject. Before one can get consistent, quality images of any animal/bird, one has to know what to look for. Before heading to the field, head to the library. With the eagle as an example, educate yourself about preferred habitat, roosting areas, food sources, social behavior, mating behavior, how they act and react in different kinds of weather at different times of year, etc. After cramming as much knowledge in your head as possible, then, and only then, take to the field for a scouting mission. The number one rule for finding wildlife of any kind is to follow the food! Find out what the available and preferred food source is for a particular time of year, where it is most abundant and readily accessible, and I guarantee you will find the critter you are after.
After you find where the birds and hanging around and eating, the next step is to be able to get in position to actually photograph them, which means getting past their greatest defense…those eagle eyes! While juvenile and immature eagles are not quite so nervous around people, the big, mature birds (with the characteristic white head) are very spooky and wary. They simply will not tolerate people getting too close are gawking at them for too long. Thus, one has to go undercover!
Whether it’s shooting from a parked vehicle, from behind a natural or a man-made blind of some kind, the bottom line is that in most circumstances, one has to remain hidden, or at least appear to be a non-threatening part of the surroundings. Sometimes one has to get a bit creative to get close. A few months ago I spent a cold, blustery, winter day photographing dozens of eagles feasting and fighting over the gnarly remains of a beached humpback whale. To get close enough for the photo shoot, I snuck up as far as I could by breaking up my human outline with a camouflage umbrella. After getting within good shooting distance, I hunkered down behind a snow bank about 30 yards away from the whale carcass. After letting things settle down for a half hour or so, the eagles regrouped and I photographed the action for an hour or two in the midst of a snow storm.
It was wild!!! I have never seen such violence among birds before! I was able to get some incredible action shots of the dominant eagles pouncing on the others and stabbing their sharp talons in their victims back. They’d pin down an intruding, lesser bird, beat it with their wings, bite its neck, peck its eyes and rip out its feathers in a savage attack! Some of these fights were apparently to the death, as I found the fresh remains of a bloody, beaten, young eagle not far from the whale carcass. It was a brutal reminder about how creatures in nature will fiercely protect what they believe to be their own. Once again, nature is not a Disney movie!
As far as the technical aspects of photographing raptors such as bald eagles, one obviously has to use a quality zoom/telephoto lens and shoot fast! Learn to anticipate the shot! This is where lots of time spent just watching and studying wildlife really pays off. The more familiar you get with the movements and behavior of a creature, the more you will be able to consciously capture that perfect shot instead of blazing away as fast as possible and just hoping that some of your images will look great. At the same time though, don’t be afraid to use up those memory cards. The more shots you take the better chances at getting some incredible images! My point is simply to do so with forethought and conscious awareness. Practice shutter discipline!
A final tip, one way to develop some great shooting skills with your camera is to learn about the skills and techniques of things like sporting clay (trap and skeet) or wing shooting. Training your eye, body and “trigger finger” to work together, to judge distance, perception and movement in such a manner is a HUGE help in developing wildlife photography skills. There are lots of articles out there on the internet about such skills, so have a look and try to apply it to the camera.
Good luck and good shooting!
You can view Josephs imagery here.
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