Twenty-five years ago most professional wildlife photographers were like me shooting with Fujchrome Velvia film (ISO 50 with terrible shadow details) and struggling to capture flying birds without the benefit of predictive autofocus that was still years away. In those days the best bald eagle photos I had were of birds perched in uninteresting static poses. In fact, my best-selling eagle photo from those days, the one illustrated below, was a simple head-and-shoulders image of an adult eagle that had eaten so much salmon that its distended crop made it hard to fly away and it allowed me an unusually close approach. Although the shot certainly revealed nice close-up detail of the bird, it lacked any revealing behaviour or interesting action. Today such a shot would be dismissed as humdrum and trivial.
Fast forward to May, 2015 to the temperate rainforests of coastal British which boasts the highest concentration of nesting bald eagles on the continent. I was there exploring the Bella Coola Valley, roughly 400 kilometres north of Vancouver. The Bella Coola River flows west for 60 kilometres, cutting through the rugged Coast Mountains before emptying into the Pacific Ocean. My quest on this photo field trip was to capture the verdant richness of the rainforest, the giant trees, the lush mosses and ferns, salamanders, and songbirds. Initially, bald eagles were not on my wish list, but soon were. Everywhere I went I saw soaring eagles, eagles screaming from treetops, eagles harassed by ravens, and eagles perched on river beds. Local wildlife photographer Michael Wigle, who has lived in the valley for 30 years, had often worked the eagles, especially in January and February. His superb images were a testament to his efforts and skill. Michael’s shots of eagles fighting over meat scraps are dynamic and exciting. From him I learned that there were 4-6 active eagle nests in the valley and he alerted me to one nest where I spent some time watching the incubating eagles. The situation was not a productive photo shoot for me but interesting from a natural history perspective.
Bella Coola River
I decided I should add bald eagles to my rainforest shot list but limit my goal to a few simple flight shots that would easily outdo my previous best-selling image from decades earlier.
The bald eagle’s principle food is fish. A hungry eagle can stuff itself with a kilogram (2.3 lbs) of fish, and bolt half of that in just four minutes. Such speed is not without purpose, as eagles are notorious thieves and will pirate a catch from each other, any time they can. Juvenile eagles, two to four years of age, are the most notorious pirates, as they have yet to fully hone their fishing skills, and pilfering for them is often more successful than fishing for themselves.
Eagles also steal fish from loons, common mergansers (Mergus merganseri), herring gulls (Larus argentatus), and even river otters. The osprey is another habitual victim of these regal pirates. Benjamin Franklin, the celebrated statesman and inventor, deplored the eagle's thievery and he lobbied strongly to prevent the bird from being chosen as the American national emblem. Franklin wrote. "He is a bird of bad moral character; he does not get his living honestly; you may see him perched on some dead tree, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labour of the fishing-hawk [osprey]; when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to his nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the bald eagle pursues him and takes it from him."
Knowing the eagle’s tendency for scavenging and piracy I decided to try my hand at baiting the birds. I had tried this strategy before with limited success so perhaps this time things would go better. Here’s are the steps I followed:
#1 Find a location in a riverbed with good visibility and where eagles are likely to patrol.
#2 Set up a blind a short distance away on the edge of the forest.
#3 Get some fishy bait of some description, either scraps from a fish processing plant or frozen fish from the grocery store.
#4 Place the bait where it will easily be spotted and secure it with picture hanging wire tied to a tent peg that you hammer into the stream bed until it is hidden belowground. This prevents the eagle from landing and immediately flying way with your bait before you get any photographs.
#5 Build it, and they will come.
With the new camera technology it’s almost child’s play to get stunning images of flying eagles if you plan ahead. Your patience will determine the level of success you enjoy. The more time you spend the greater are the opportunities, and the more images you will capture.
All of the eagle photos in this article except the first one were shot on a Nikon D800 camera body with a Nikkor 500 mm f/4 less. I set the ISO as low as 640, but never higher than 1600 because of undesirable noise. Although eagles are slow-flying birds their wingtips can be blurry if your shutter speed is too low so I generally shot at 1/1600 sec or 1/2000 sec. My apertures varied from f/4 to f/8 depending on the brightness of the light. I set my light meter on shutter speed priority with an exposure compensation of +0.7. My reasoning was that the slight overexposure would add more light to the eagle’s dark body plumage but not burn out the white feathers on its head and tail so much that I could not recover them in Photoshop Camera Raw. On this point I was right and the setting worked beautifully for me.
None of my photos of flying eagles are breathtakingly unique or anything that many others haven’t already captured, but for an old guy from the film days like me it was a great success.