You Have To Be There

I was dying to get over to a nearby lake to see if any new birds had moved in.  It was a bit early for any serious migration, but you never know.  Days passed, but I just couldn’t seem to get there. Then we got a big spring snowstorm.  Regardless, I made the decision to head that way after an early Saturday meeting at my church.  It was pretty late in the morning by the time I arrived at the lake, and a mere 22 degrees.  But what really kept me going was the nicely overcast sky.  Great light for photography even at midday.  I was disappointed to find that there was nothing much going on.  Rats.

Then, as I was just about ready to leave, I noticed two bald eagles sitting in a tree about 150 yards away.  Because of the freezing weather I had planned on shooting primarily from my truck.  I had no gloves or hat and it would be a pretty wet hike in the spring snow.  A quick check of the birds through my lens showed one to be a fine adult, while the other was immature, and had captured a fish.

Now here’s the deal:  I have a thing about getting a good photo of an immature bald eagle.  I mean adults are pretty much all the same, brown with white heads, right?  But immature eagles vary considerably in color from bird to bird.  A first year eagle  is generally dark brown throughout with dark brown eyes and a dark beak.  In years two and three they are a blotchy brown and white, also with the dark beak, but now with a pale yellowish gold eye.  Year four gets you the color scheme we all recognize as a bald eagle: brown body, white head, with yellow beak and yellow eyes.

But it was freezing cold and I didn’t even have my snow boots!  Thinking this thing through, I looked out the window again. One hundred and fifty yards away, sat a beautiful immature eagle with a fish.  What was I doing just sitting here?  I grabbed my camera and headed that way.

I knew I didn’t have much chance of getting close.  I’ve tried approaching eagles at this lake in the past, and so far with zero success.  While they see a lot of people, they apparently don’t much like us in their space.  But nevertheless, nothing ventured…

Using some trees to sort of hide my approach, I was able to narrow the distance to 75 yards–so far so good.  I stopped behind a tree to warm my hands and just as I started to move forward again, a third eagle swooped, calling like crazy and “my” adult friend lifted off it’s perch and off they flew together.  That is usually how it goes.

The immature guy, however, the one I really wanted, was still sitting on the same branch!  I moved closer and yet he remained, focused for the time being on his fish.  By George, I was getting close!  Just too many branches between him and me to get a good photograph.   Figuring this was all I was likely to get, I snapped a picture just to remember the day and then I made my final move.   I slipped to my right, clearing a bunch of branches, but there were still too many in the way.  A little more to the right… Almost there.  A little more and I noticed he was getting nervous.  Still slightly more and I cleared the branches in front of him, even though now the background was pretty cluttered.  Click, click, click. I fired a series of shots and with nothing to lose, went all out.  Maybe 15 feet more to the right and the background would be clear as well. He let me get there and I fired off another series of shots. Now, certain he’d had enough, and wanting to catch the action of his take-off, I held the big lens in position as long as I could.  Soon I was so cold I could hardly feel the camera buttons. I had to lower the rig to warm my hands.

It was over.  Before I could get my camera back into position again, he leaped off the limb and into the air.  I watched him go until I couldn’t see him any more, then I ran for my truck and some much needed heat.


Canon 1Dx, 600 f4II lens with 2xIII ext (1200mm), 1/800 sec @ f/8, ISO 800, + 1 2/3 EV

Perhaps some day I will get a better shot, but for now, this is by far my best photograph of an immature bald eagle.

Yet you have to think, what if I had just gone home that day without even an effort to see what was at the lake?  What if I had decided it was too late in the day, or too cold, or what if I’d not even tried to approach the birds since it had never worked before?  One thing I know for sure, if you aren’t where the photograph is, you can’t get  the photograph.

So I guess all this goes to show, if you want to capture that special moment in time, you just have to be there.

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