This winter, Terry has deliberately been our driver to set me up for photo opportunities because he feels he has enjoyed many years of my assists to him. This has positioned me on the best side of the vehicle to make it possible for me to build my own portfolio of winter wildlife images. Up to this day, the best eagle shot ever was of a bald eagle in the snow along the Middle Fork of the John Day River taken by Terry a couple of years ago.
Though the weather forecast on Feb 23rd was for snow showers, we decided to go on a photo shoot, figuring we could always turn around if it got too stormy. Little did we imagine that snow would become a key element in nearly all of our photographs that day.
Early on along our route, there is a wonderful distant snag (1/4 mile away) where we have often seen a bald eagle perched. On this day there were four plus a black-billed magpie. We should have known then that this was going to be a different kind of day.
We checked all our favorite locations as we drove miles up the river, but nothing much happened by the time we reached Galena. We thought we’d give it up and turn around by Camp Creek. Then Terry suggested that we’d come that far, we may as well go a few miles further.
As we started on up the Middle Fork, we spotted ravens in the road. Then we spotted bald eagles in some cottonwood trees. We moved closer and saw a road-killed coyote just off the road to our left. It had obviously been fed on by eagles but at the moment there were only ravens and magpies on the carcass; so we focused on the bald eagles to our right.
There were technical difficulties to produce good images. The snow showers were sporadically heavy and light. When too heavy, it’s impossible to get good focus. The sky was blown out gray, so lining the birds up against a dark background was a must. We had three adults on one tree which was special, but bald eagles (with white heads and very dark bodies) are notoriously difficult to photograph with proper light exposure.
We decided the better image was to use more magnification and isolate just two subjects against the mountain, with shutter speeds capable of stopping the snowflakes from blurring. Terry and I usually discuss these technical challenges of the subjects we are shooting, if time allows. This has undoubtedly improved our success rate.
When I felt I had the pictures I wanted, we continued up the Middle Fork. As we returned, we spotted a golden eagle feeding on the road-kill. We were amazed that it stayed on the carcass as we crept closer and adjusted our position to shoot out the window.
In all our past experiences, the golden eagle has been very skittish and we have not been able to approach as close as we’d like. I shot away until a person working in the area drove up and frightened the eagle off. He apologized saying he didn’t see our lens out the window.
As we began driving away, we noticed two bald eagles stacked in the tree on the opposite side of the road. We drove down to turn around, came back and I was able to photograph them in the lightly falling snow. Once again, we headed up the river road to a turn around.
It is important to point out why we repeatedly drove to turnaround points in order to line ourselves up with photo subjects, rather than to stop nearby, get out of our rig and use a beanbag over the hood, a tripod or even hand hold a camera. It is guaranteed that getting out of your vehicle is a sure way to get your subject to leave the area asap. While they may be wary of you stopping and pointing a lens out the window, most wildlife does not recognize a vehicle as a threatening predator or competitor. If you want the photo shoot to last and produce, stay in your rig.
As we returned back down the road, Terry spotted the golden eagle on the hillside above the road-kill. I was fortunate this particular golden eagle was so tolerant.
I am aware that this “day of the eagles” was something that may never happen again in my lifetime. Every wildlife photographer has experienced many days when nothing productive happened at all. Relative to Terry, was this a case of beginner’s luck? I think not. I had at my side nearly thirty years of his wildlife photography experience. Everything came together for success – the close proximity to eagles, the artful background of darkened mountainsides with the entire scene veiled in falling snow, the judgments about what settings to use, and what workable positioning to achieve. All of this melded into a once in a lifetime, special happening. Thanks, Terry. (I must mention he did all of this with a broken rib from a fall on the ice just days before.) Next time, I’m driving.