Lock and Dam 14:
Located in the city of Le Claire, IA. Hailed as one of the better bald eagle viewing opportunities in the continental US, each winter hundreds of eagles congregate along the flyway of the sometimes frozen Mississippi River to catch fish that get stunned as they travel through the cascading water passing through the lock.
Hands downs, Lock and Dam 14 is my favorite because it provides closer views of the eagles from the viewing platform. The best light is in the afternoon, although I’ve still gotten some great images in the morning. Get there early to find a good spot on the platform as it gets crowded later in the day (especially on weekends).
While in Le Claire, plan a visit to the Buffalo Bill Museum, or a boat ride with the Riverboat Twilight Tour cruising the Mississippi. There is also the Mississippi River Distilling Company. They offer a great view of the river and also a wide range of spirits. For those who enjoy collecting, visit the American Pickers, a show on the History Channel – specializing in the odd and unusual.
Good ole ABE (American Bald Eagle):
The bald eagle was chosen June 20, 1782, as the emblem of the United States of America. However, the name is a misnomer since the bird isn’t bald. The use of “bald” in its name is a shortening of the word “piebald,” which describes something that is spotted or patchy, referring to the eagle’s contrasting dark body and white head and tail. The only true bald birds in North America are wild turkeys, vultures, and condors.
An adult eagle (Haliaeetus Leucocephalus) has a white head and tail, yellow bill and feet, with dark brown wings and bodies. Females are larger than males, and immature eagles may be larger than adults, owing to longer wing and tail feathers. Immature Eagles, those younger than four years old, are predominantly brown, slowly gaining their distinctive white head and tail as they grow older. In the wild, a bald eagle will live 30-35 years (up to 50 years in captivity). A full-grown bald eagle’s body is between 31 to 37 inches long and has a wingspan up to seven feet. They can fly up to 30 miles an hour and dive at speeds approaching 100 miles an hour! Eagles feed primarily on fish, supplemented by small mammals, waterfowl, and carrion. These amazing birds mate for life and an established pair will use the same nest for many years. Both parents spend about 35 days incubating 1 to 3 dull bluish-white eggs. The chicks fledge at 72-80 days after hatching. While the chicks are small, the parents move about the nest with their talons balled up into fists to avoid harming them.
An eagle’s talons are raspy-rough on the bottom with sharp projections on the toe pads, in order to grasp and hold on to slippery fish. The massive hooked bill tears open a fish with ease. As with other eagle species, they are known for their excellent eyesight. While in flight, they are capable of seeing fish in the water from several hundred feet above. While fishing, eagles are “scoopers” rather than “hover-divers.” Upon seeing a fish, an eagle will drop from its perch, fly low, parallel to the water, and then pluck the fish with its talons from near the surface. Eagles also will wade into the water to catch fish. They spend a good amount of time grooming themselves and will also occasionally bathe; they are capable of floating in the water by moving their wings in a “rowing” motion.
Steep declines occurred in the mid-20th century because of habitat loss, and pesticide and heavy metal poisoning. By 1970, fewer than 1,000 Bald Eagles were raising broods in the continental United States. A ban in 1972 of the harmful pesticide DDT, along with the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973 helped set the eagle on a path to recovery. Since then, eagle populations have grown, and the species was reclassified as “threatened” in 1995. Although the eagle was considered for removal from the federal Endangered Species List in 1999, the species’ full recovery is far from complete. Populations in the lower 48 states remain relatively low, and the birds’ reproductive success along Great Lakes shorelines remains poor. Many eagles still show high pesticide residue in their systems, and loss of nesting habitat to development presents a continuous challenge.
Before I press the shutter:
Photographing eagles in flight can be a challenge, as light is forever changing. Exposure is difficult because the body is dark and the head and tail are white. It is easy to blow out the whites with little definition in the tail feathers, and you need to react quickly, especially when more than one eagle is in the shot. Keeping them focused in the frame is no small feat. They quickly get away or out of the frame.
The rule of thumb with any bird photography, including bald eagles, is fast shutter speeds. Unless you are purposefully trying to create motion blur images, shutter speeds need to be well over 1/1250th of a second (or higher) to freeze the action of birds in flight. Yes, when they perch you can get away with much slower shutter speeds, but you never know when they are going to take off so you have to be ready. I keep my ISO between 500 and 800 and my aperture was at a constant F8.
Well let’s get a little technical, shall we:
- Begin with the focus point and where it should be, which is on the eye of the subject. There are many things that can be forgiven in photography, but a blurry eye is not one of them. My entire time spent shooting, I kept my Nikon D500 on Auto Focus Continuous (AF-C) with 25 focus points with the drive mode on Continuous High, which ensures I will not miss a single frame of the action.
- The next big thing I focus on is composition. I am not a fan of placing a subject in the center of the frame. It is important that you consider how you frame or crop the photo. I like to give the subject room to move or open space in the direction the subject is looking or heading.
- With wildlife photography, I do my best to isolate my subject from the background, as it creates a sense of an emotional connection. Your eye does not have to compete with the subject against a distracting background. There is one exception and that applies to shooting an environmental portrait. For my trip to Le Claire, the majority of my eagles were isolated against a darker color rather than lighter ones in the backgrounds, to ensure the image stood out and it drew your focus to the subject.
- You can’t always pick when an action sequence is going to unfold, so you have to be ready for it when it happens. There are action sequences everywhere waiting to be captured. The images I set out to capture were birds in flight. It can convey one heck of a dramatic story and also be very visually appealing. Action sequences are a little harder to capture because it usually requires a quick reaction time and most likely you will need to pan to follow and capture it.
- As much emphasis is placed on action, the moment of anticipation is equally a strong factor, but it can also be a source of frustration. You can wait and wait and wait, and yet it doesn’t always turn out as you planned. When it all comes together, the image you get can be so rewarding and will drive you further along in your photography adventures and skill level. I waited all day Sunday, hours on end, in one spot, for what I thought (hoped) may happen. Fortunately for me, it did! Sometimes things happen suddenly and unexpectedly, in either case, be ready for it.
Saying goodbye to a friend:
I planned to visit Lock and Dam 14 on January 15th, 2017, with my good friend Jim Gilbert, aka “Saluki Jim”, but bad road conditions prevented that trip from taking place. We decided to try again on the weekend of 21st and 22nd. On the evening of January 16th, I received a phone call that I won’t forget anytime soon, my good friend Jim, had passed away earlier that day.
I must admit, the news hit me hard. I had not been impacted by the loss of a loved one in a very long time. Jim and I met in a local camera club and we became friends in a short amount of time.
We took trips to the Colorado Rockies, photographed eagles in Clarksville, MO, and even shot women’s golf tournaments at his alma mater. He had a thing for waterfalls. I used to chuckle on our adventures; he would seek the sound of running water, in hopes of finding out if the source led from or to a waterfall.
Our other common interests included trivia, sports, travel, photography and bicycling. He understood me and I him.
It took a while for me to adjust to the thought of shooting without him. This trip was one of our planned photography adventures. I decided that Jim would have wanted me out there doing one of the things we both loved. So as Jim would say, “No worries.” I got my gear packed and I left St. Louis, MO at 3:30 am, headed up the river to Lock and Dam 18 in Gladstone, IL before making my final stop at Lock and Dam 14 in Le Claire, IA.
First day – There was a massive drifting patch of ice which stretched from the observation platform to the middle of the river, keeping the eagles out of my ideal shooting range, plus lighting was terrible. I turned my lens to focus on the pelicans, who weren’t shy at all.
They really seemed to like the attention of the lens, as they flew close by and banked, before heading out further where the fishing was good. I also made the acquaintance of three nature photographers: Al Pierce from Illinois, Todd Kay from Wisconsin and Dale Woods from Iowa. Since there wasn’t much action that day we traded shooting experiences and shared photo adventures. Neither the light or ice situation ever improved, so I packed up for the day and headed back to my hotel.
The second day – After a good night’s rest and a filling breakfast, I discovered most of the ice patch had shifted away from the observation platform, making the area more inviting for eagle fishing action. Good thing I got there early because there were a lot more photographers that day as well. I was able to choose my desired spot based on the availability and predictability of that day’s light. There was quite a bit of action going back and forth. In one sequence, I saw an adult eagle catch a fish, only to be greedily pursued by a hungry immature eagle. On occasion the bird being pursued will drop its fish into the river, to be swept up by the eager pursuer. Overall the day was good, if Jim were there shooting with me, we would probably be going back and forth comparing shots, giving each other fist bumps for capturing an image that would have been a technical challenge for the both of us. Looking back on the day, I think I was able to get at least one image that was worth making the trip for, and one that Jim and I would be smiling about and probably discussing on our return trip back home.
I miss you, my friend, you are now soaring with the eagles!