Eagles in Winter
by Michael Wigle
In the dead of winter here in the Bella Coola Valley, conditions can be tough for our resident Bald Eagle population. It’s a time between the last of the salmon spawners in late December and the first of the herring spawn on the outer coast in early spring. They settle in the trees along the river or around the garbage dump patiently scanning their surroundings for prey or carrion and at the same time conserving their energy during these lean months. For a photographer attempting to capture images of them, winter can be a very productive time.
An eagle coming through the frame from the side can be somewhat easier to maintain focus on but the speed of their approach is blinding especially when their intent is to grasp and continue on without coming to ground. Shot at 1/1000” f/8 and ISO 800 with D300 and 70-200/1.7x extender. Exposure compensation was set to (0), with an effective image circle equivalent of a 500 mm lens in 35 mm terms. Some Adobe Camera Raw (ACR ) refinements added (fill-light to the shadow areas).
Their circle of wariness tends to diminish especially around a food source to the point where they can be approached to within 100 feet or so without alarm. The food source or the comfort of a sheltered perch takes priority to flying off. Rest assured that they are always aware of your presence but their priorities have shifted to the more immediate concerns of sustenance and energy conservation. It is during these times that I present “gifts” to the eagles in the form of meat and fish scraps that I gather from various sources. I will scout locations such as open fields or river bars in areas of the valley which get some direct sunlight. Since the Bella Coola Valley generally runs east to west and is bounded by 6000 to 8000 foot mountains, direct sunlight from the southern sky is limited to a few cross valleys where the low angle of the sun can break through to the valley bottom. This is generally a couple hours of available light till the sun disappears behind the next mountain. I’ve come to know the time of these “light windows” and time my presentations accordingly.
A fast shutter speed of 1/1000 sec. or so is necessary to capture the action in an eagle-to-eagle confrontation such as this. It’s a blur of wings and talons that can last a fraction of a second. A successful method is to focus on a spot, watching their body language and commit to hitting the shutter at the first lifting of the wings. If action truly develops, your steadiness, squeezing the shutter and the mille-second shutter lag can make the difference in catching some part of it or nothing at all. It is all that fast.
Any digital or film SLR with which you are practiced in using can catch the action. I presently use a D300 as my main camera and because of its DX format, I can get a 1.5x increase in focal length with a remarkably good pixel density. Thus, with my 300 VR Nikkor and 1.7x teleconverter, I can get an effective reach of 750mm.
With eyes focused on the prize, talons open, legs forward and wings up to control speed and position the eagle approaches. Thanks to continuous auto focus, capturing a fast moving subject coming towards the lens gives a much higher degree of success in catching the moment.
Soaring over the horizon in a clear blue, equally lit sky, makes for an easy exposure either in digital or film.
Thus far, through January, I’ve made five or six such presentations with the hopes of capturing their behavior on or near the food source. Eagles are remarkable aerial masters and I’ve been able to capture imagery of their various movements through the air; soaring, swooping, grasping and food battles.
Michael Wigle is a nature photographer based in Bella Coola, B.C. He was principal photographer for the book; Bella Coola: Life in the Heart of the Coast Mountains and co-principal photographer for Birds of the Raincoast. Both books published by Harbour Publishing. Purchase his books at amazon.ca