Sunday, February 2, 2014

Eagles on the Dam

It’s 7am and the temperature has reached a balmy negative 3 degrees as I pack up my camera bag. The sun is just starting to broach the horizon as I climb in to the car and start to make my way to the roller dam on the Cedar River. The eagles have gathered there for the winter and today I am going to try my hand at photographing them. I have a 500mm Mirrored lens that I borrowed from my father that I plan to use for this adventure. I haven’t really shot with it so I my expectations are low on a lot of sharp images coming out. Nor have I spent anytime down by the dam to know where I should be to get the best angles for this time of day. I am starting out a bit behind the eight ball, right?

As I get close to the area I realize that my quick glance at Google maps was not helping me in anyway. Lost and loosing time I rush around trying to find a sign pointing me to the dam. The sun is now up and I can feel the pressure mounting. If I arrive too late the eagles will not be as active and I will have missed my opportunity to photograph. I eventually find a road that leads a little farther south from my position and follow it. Pay dirt, I get lucky and follow it to the dam. Just before I hit the parking lot I see them, hanging around in the trees waiting like old men with fishing poles for the fish to arrive.

I quickly but quietly get out of my car. I move this way knowing that they can see me but hoping that by not making too much noise I will not spook them. I head down off the parking lot and on the banks of the river when the first one takes off, spooked. So much for my plan, so I hang around putting the lens on and planning my next move. The eagles are east of me as well as the sun. I need to move east and photograph them looking west but getting around them will not be easy. There are only a few left in the tree, two adults and one Juvenal. I move into the trees and up to the road where I will cross in back of them. For some reason they were okay with me walking behind them but not on the river bank.

I found a place and tried to work my way down a steep incline to the river bank. I wish I could say I did this gracefully but I did land hard on my ass and cause the ducks and geese to scatter. This was not helping my effort in not disturbing the eagles. None the less I gathered up my tripod and my pride and set myself up to start photographing.

The eagles did not disappoint. They flew majestically over head searching for fish to catch. Because the lens is a manual focus lens and fixed at f8 I had to squeeze off a few photos to get the exposure right. I set the ISO at 1250 and shutter speed between 640 and 1600. I was not thrilled about the noise I was going to get but again I also knew that I would miss a lot of shot due to miss focusing.

Shooting with this lens was hard. I could have my subject locked on and just a smallest movement of the lens or the eagle and the whole image was soft. But damn how close I could get with it. The first half an hour was spent getting use to the lens while following the rapture. I found myself loosing the bird every once in a while in the middle of panning or focusing. I would peek over the view finder then lock on and reacquire it again in the viewfinder. Missing a lot of shots doing this I reminded myself that I have time and I am just getting the feel for the whole situation.

As the hour past the warmth of the sun was not enough to keep me from shivering while I was photographing. This proved problematic in focusing because of the amount of movement in the viewfinder I was creating was not helping me focus this touchy lens. So between the Arial show the eagles put on I turned my attention to the geese and ducks that were bathed in the steam coming off the river. I got down low and through the viewfinder composed images of them against the rising vapors. I loved the shadows the trees were casting on the river and found them helpful when composing the shot. I snapped a few frames off and turned my attention to the eagles once again.

I lasted about two hours before I got too cold. In that two hours I got to see an Arial display that shows why they command the skies. The sound of the river and cries of both eagles and crows still echo in my ears as I write this post. Just before I left I looked out over the dam and reflected on the event and how important these areas of open water are to these birds of prey.  By keeping these ice free areas clean from debris and chemicals we can continue to enjoy the beauty of the rich wildlife that seek out these open areas. These are great places that are close by to see animals that you might normally not see in town. So get out and enjoy them. Seeing these birds in person is much better than seeing them on TV or even in my photographs.

Enjoy and remember, leave no trace.