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Jim Oltersdorf - Pilots of Nature   Print  E-mail 
Written by Fotomall Staff  
Friday, 17 December 2004

Pilots of Nature

Jim Oltersdorf

      Long ago, Benjamin Franklin said of the American Bald Eagle "I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country; he is a bird of bad moral character; like those among men who live by sharping and robbing, he is generally poor, and often very lousy. The turkey is a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America".
           The Haliaeetus leucocephalus may indeed be a scavenger and robber but I would have to disagree with Mr. Franklin in his stated moral character description.  The commanding seven and one half foot wing span aerial helmsman of the skies dominates virtually all of the heavens. There is no greater or powerful force on wings in North America.  To me, this most magnificent bird was correctly installed as the symbol of the greatest nation on earth ever to be witnessed.
           If one ever doubts the tremendous velocity of the eagle's wrath when threatened or in defense of it's territory, it only takes a milli-second if they were to venture into this winged gladiator's nesting grounds.  Streaking from dizzying heights, the assaults send most everything, including fools, scurrying rapidly away.  With 2-3 inch long needle-sharp claws, a 50 mph rake across a living body will eviscerate many required items necessary for life.  The slogan written on the face of this white-headed, feathered F-15 fighter pilot is, "Trespassers Beware".
           So how does one photograph these sovereign and stately birds in safety and in respect for their environment?   Study them. Learn about every habit, antic, behavior and condition that involves them.  Because we have two species of eagles (golden and bald) in our nation, they have distinct and separate behaviors, flight characteristics and physical attributes. Their methodologies of hunting and habits couldn't be any farther apart from each other.  Knowing what these are will enhance your chances to capture a truly remarkable photograph.
           It is a difficult task to hold a complete and full knowledge about eagles and to do so allows a photographer to shoot spectacular imagery of these creatures.  This wisdom develops over a period of years.  At times, it has been known to happen that a well-intentioned photographer in his or her zest to capture an image actually caused a fatality, perhaps all unintentional.
           Having a thorough understanding of these aristocratic birds leads a photographer to encourage respect, safekeeping and enjoyment for them.  I follow my self-induced creed of; "If, in my pursuits of attempting to photograph an eagle that may cause it to alter it's behavior in an adverse way or threatens it's sanctity, then I shall not continue these pursuits".  There can never be a time when getting the photograph is more important than the birds' welfare, ever.
           During the incubation period in spring, outside temperatures are still very cold with some eagles actually laying their eggs and incubating them in snowstorms!  Because eagles grow very slowly (they actually attain their white heads by and are sexually mature at five years old) after they are hatched, they are extremely susceptible to environmental conditions.  Being too close to the nest during these times can produce stress resulting in the parents abandoning the nest.  It only takes a few minutes for the precious eggs to cool to a point of killing the embryo during incubation if you happen to cause the parent to fly off while it is sitting on the clutch.  During the summer months when the midday heat is at it's worst, sometimes the only shade an eaglet has is the spread wings of the parent bird in its attempts to shelter the young from the deadly heat of direct sunlight.
           An interesting behavior with eagles occurs when the temperature is high.  Eagles cannot sweat like a human to cool their body temperature down. Much like a dog, they have to open their mouth to allow the warmth of body heat to escape, thusly cooling themselves off.  This works in the favor of the photographer since the eagles then attain the appearance of "screaming", which makes for a much more dramatic photograph, but only when done at a reasonable distance. I found an 800mm F/5.6 telephoto lens is great for this, allowing almost portrait-type imagery to be created without disturbing the birds.
           Eagles have many other reasons why they open their mouths but a picture with the bird's beak open will usually be a much more breathtaking shot than one with their mouths closed.  They are one of the few animals in nature that photograph well like this and it allows a much more appealing and charismatic image. When eagles threaten each other by trespassing over the others' territory, squabbling about food or seeking dominance, their beaks open wide and it's moments like these to make sure you should have your camera ready and loaded with a roll of fresh film.  Set the camera's film advance on its highest possible setting.  By putting it on the maximum film advance speed, you allow for sequential images of this behavior. If you do not, you might be missing perhaps the best shot over this 3-5 second display.  Remember, that 3-5 second timeframe may be the only opportunity to shoot in your entire day or two week long trip!
           Winter months are one of the best times to capture the truly sensational sights of eagles.  They have a knack for knowing where the fish are, which means that is where you should set your sights. Whether it's Idaho, Washington, Montana or even Alaska, bald eagles will always congregate around open water.  Iced over areas are usually abandoned by the birds since they are cut off from their main food source.  It's not unusual for them to grab a quick meal off a road kill but that is usually left for the ravens, magpies or crows.  Winter driving in states such as rural Nevada allows you to see golden eagles eating off the carcasses of road-killed hares or other animals.  Golden eagles are not usually found around water areas, as they are normally a high elevation bird. These tawny-brown masters of avian flight are a much more secretive bird, defiantly keeping themselves to some of the most remote regions of the nation.
           Long lenses make sense for photographing eagles, especially if you decide to go after the goldens.  An 800mm F/5.6 lens is not too much and coupled with a 1x or even 2x tele-extender makes an excellent choice for the wide range of behaviors you will encounter.  For compositional study, the eagle should comprise at least 40% of your frame.  Surprisingly enough, it can be very disappointing when you get your film back from the lab and see a tiny speck in the frame that you can hardly make out as an eagle when you didn't follow this rule.  Make a deliberate attempt to REALLY look into your frame and make sure what you're shooting is filling that percentage up.
           Of course, one of the drawbacks to using a big lens is weight consideration when you are hauling equipment into the backcountry where the goldens habituate. Lugging around monstrous lenses can quickly become an adventure into itself.  Look for these birds to be soaring high in the mountainous areas; a good pair of binoculars can be a valued item to enable you to accurately identify them. Goldens are attracted to winterkills of pronghorn, mule deer, elk and hares.  It is not uncommon to find a number of them feeding on one.  Place a blind in the area, sit back and wait and after a short period they're sure to be back.  Because this meal may very well be the only food source in the winter months, please be sensitive to not disturbing them by setting your blind up too close to the kill.  Winter months are especially the most critical times of the year for survival of eagles and frightening them off the only source of food around for miles can have extreme detrimental effects on them.
            A nice trick for photographing these winged aviators up close and personal is to set up a remote triggering device to trip your camera when they are at a kill.  I use a Nikon M-1 transmitter and receiver for this and found it to work great!  I set my Nikon 5 on a small tripod close to the kill and weigh it down to establish a stable platform.  Attaching the receiver to the hot shoe of the camera, I then hide and await the performance of the coming event.  Snuggled in my blind, I then can be out of the bone-chilling winds and elements and simply depress the trigger on the transmitter to capture the shot.  Try to use a wide-angle lens, as it is difficult to determine exactly where the eagle/s will sit and eat on the carcass.
           Golden eagles prefer to live a solitary existence, which dictates photography to be conducted in blinds or vehicles most of the time.  It is interesting, however, that over a period of time they will seemingly adjust to the photographer if they are a "local" bird. It's important if you expose yourself to the eagles, to always wear the same color and type of clothing.  The birds become used to this and although subtle to humans, it is very meaningful to the eagles since they acclimate in this manner.  Even the smallest change in detail can scare them away.  A fine example of this (as with many animals) is if you carry a tripod attached to your pack, make it always a habit to enter and exit their territory in that manner.  If you wear a red shirt, always wear that same colored shirt when in their territory.  Many people do not realize this as these birds are not stupid and will learn to recognize your walk, how you stumble along the trail, even your posture when you sit resting on a log. They will watch you intently when you eat your sandwich and how you drink from your canteen.  The consistent and slow movements that you exhibit will provide the eagles with a more relaxed attitude.
           The moment you change the conditioned habits you so painstakingly "taught" the eagles about yourself, they will pick up on this and then you become a stranger all over again.  Interestingly enough, your movements are closely inspected by the birds, which lend favor to you in the acclimation process.  I have demonstrated this for validity purposes many times by parking my truck and walking within as little as twenty-five yards without the eagle flying away.  I then walk back to the truck and have my friend hike towards the eagle only for it to fly away when he is hundreds of yards away from it.  Simply said, the eagle doesn't know him.

           This is not the place for clanging, banging or other noises the birds are not accustomed to.  If you were to listen carefully to the environmental noises in the territories of eagles, you would find their habitat is usually very quiet.  Be the same way in your mannerisms and it will promote success in photographing these extraordinary creatures.

            Although there is no one best lens to use, I have found the Nikkor F/2.8 ED 80-200 mm is a suitable lens and one of my favorites for close-up, portrait-type imagery.  It's a great and lightweight lens that affords a great deal of abilities.  Out in the field one will find a huge assortment of subjects to shoot, all at varying distances and angles.  The 77mm diameter front of this lens means you're going to be paying a little more for add-on filters and lens hoods, but that extra expense will be worth it in contrast to the increased capability the lens affords.
           Since a great deal of eagle photography is created with your lens pointed towards sky, a circular polarizer will deepen the coloration of the blue with striking results.  I particularly like a circular polarizer that screws onto the front element because it's so much easier to simply twist it for maximum effect without worrying about it falling out of it's sleeve. Make sure that you position yourself, if possible, 90 degrees to the sun for this effect.  Anything is usually better than nothing if in the event you cannot be in that particular position.  A simple way of determining that you are shooting 90 degrees from the sun is to point your index finger at it, extend your thumb making an L shape and that's where maximum effect is attained.  Sometimes the effects can be too much so be careful on what your viewfinder is telling you.
           Film becomes a very personal choice but I have found Fujichrome is the best, especially Provia and Velvia.  They saturate the color well and when mixed with the vast array of warming filters on the marketplace, the photographs are stunning!  Film speeds will vary with demand predicated upon what action (or lack thereof) is being presented by the eagles.  For an overall compliment, I like to stick to the age-old 100 asa speeds.  Although it is likely you will encounter over-the-edge lighting conditions that will call for a higher film speed, I like the "Keep it Simple" profile.  Too many times things can get very complicated very quickly out in the actual field conditions and worrying about what film went where and was the asa setting right means you lost your focus and concentration.
           A couple of years ago I spent the entire summer in a 185 foot towering cottonwood tree, adjacent to an active bald eagles' nest.  Much to my delight, there were not one, not two, but THREE baby bald eaglets that were to become my "co-workers" for the summer.  Although climbing that tree daily was a feat in itself, I sat for hours and hours observing. I began to learn a great deal more about the eagle's life and how everything is affected in its surroundings.
           Much to my surprise, the first time I made my way up the observation tree I spied a cavity about thirty feet below the eagle's nest.  Curiosity getting the best of me as I hung from a very small branch revealed that a Canada goose had actually nested there. The adults successfully hatched a brood of goslings, all under the watchful eye of the eagles!  I thought to myself, what a great place to have a secure (as long as the landlord doesn't eat you!) and protected nest when the goose is susceptible to predator attacks.  Since the eagle does not usually prey upon the Canada goose, this unusual arrangement made perfect sense. When the goslings hatched, they simply bailed out and embarked upon life's cycle, all with the river running right below the nest tree.
           Only a few individuals on earth have experienced what I did later on that summer with the eagles.  I had no idea what was in store for me as I was caught up in the unfolding daily events and didn't quite realize the larger picture until much later in the summer.  This experience was to be one of the most powerful events in my career as an outdoor photographer.
           Throughout those lazy days I watched the eaglets grow to almost comical and butterball-turkey size proportions.  Their voracious appetites kept the parents constantly in search for fish and other food every waking moment of their lives.  Hours and hours passed by as I sat in my harness, dangling into oblivion, watching the family interact.  As the eaglets matured they would hop all over the huge nest flaring and flapping their wings, strengthening them with each stroke.  At times it was all I could do to keep from laughing out loud when the siblings would beat each other in nature's design to develop flight.  It was a constant fight of who could flap their wings the fastest and longest.  The siblings were outgrowing their apartment!
           It was not long after the parents reduced the food supply, nearly starving the eaglets that I began to understand why this new behavior commenced.  Initially, I thought something was very wrong, as the parents appeared to be excellent providers of food to the ever-hungry babies. They tapered off the quantity of food brought to the nest until virtually none was being brought.  Ravenous with hunger, the fledglings became agitated with each other and kept screaming when their parents flew by as if they were teasing the eaglets.
           Then, on a very magical, bright and sunny day in the wild Idaho mountains, both parent eagles soared high above the nest in ever-tightening circles and increasing speeds.  I was in awe of this tribute to avian flight.  The largest eaglet, a female, now an autocratic and streamlined size, perched upon a thick limb of the cottonwood tree that protruded from the nest.  She extended her wings and started the usual beating that she had done thousands of times before.  Then suddenly, she cocked her head to the side to look up at her parents, glanced down towards the stretch of open river and launched herself in her maiden voyage of flight.  An eagle on the wing for the very first time!
           Over the same afternoon, the other siblings took to the skies and when the last eaglet left the nest, there was a tear in my eye. I sat and pondered what had been experienced over the time I had spent with the eagle family.  It was a moment of quiet and deep personal reflection.  I rejoiced over the many hours spent high above the earth in that mighty giant of a tree. The coterie of eagles gave an honor and dignity I had never felt before.
           You see, although I took a number of images as the young eagles took flight, when I received the film back from the lab there were only photos of leaves and branches.  Disappointed?  No. Why?  Because it was a moment in life when all values are placed in spiritual form. It was not necessary to sell the pictures nor was it to gain anything other than just the God-given experience. Ironically, to an outdoor photographer, that in itself was more than enough.
Here's to the eagles...
Jim Oltersdorf - Copyright 2004

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Last Updated ( Wednesday, 07 February 2007 )

Fotomall Magazine is a division of Photography for Fun. 2004 All rights reserved.
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