When Dreams Come True: Photographing Bald Eagles in the Wild

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When Dreams Come True: Photographing Bald Eagles in the Wild

I have loved Bald Eagles for as long as I can remember.  It could be their statuesque beauty or their intense presence.  Maybe it’s their shiny white heads or their beautiful yellow beaks.  Maybe it’s their legs that look like beefy meatloaves with powerful talons protruding, ready to snatch up their prey in an instant?  It is not possible for me to narrow it down, so perhaps it’s all of those things together?

I suppose it doesn’t really matter why I am fascinated by them and their regal countenance, just that I am.  For years I have dreamed of taking photos of one of these bald beauties!  But here in Michigan, that seems almost impossible.  The closest place I know of to find a whole bunch of Bald Eagles is in Alaska.

Never Say Impossible

Close Encounter of the Bald Eagle Kind

I live in West Michigan along the lakeshore area of Lake Michigan.  In the summer, you can often find us spending a weekend or two at my parent-in-law’s family cottage on a little lake a couple of hours north of here in the Scottville area.  A few years ago, when visiting, we heard a rumor that there was a Bald Eagle in residence.  I personally didn’t believe it as I’d never seen one in the wild in West Michigan.

Of course, I have been proven wrong on many occasions in my life, and indeed this is just another one to add to the list.  You’re welcome if you are one of those in my life who is keeping a list of when I’m wrong.

And I Wasn't Ready

One evening at the cottage, while Dan and I were out on the (very tiny) lake for a sunset cruise, lo and behold, the fabled cottage Bald Eagle appeared!  Not only did he appear, but he did it in a big way by swooping down and plucking a fish right out of the lake before our very eyes. It was incredible!  It all happened so very fast that I was not prepared – the entire moment was over in about 10 seconds.

I had absolutely NO time to adjust my camera settings and had no prior practice in wildlife photography.  So, needless to say, the photos are not works of art.  They are wonderful to commemorate the memory, but not the dream photos I’d love to capture someday.  And hey – I guess if you’re technical, one could say my dream did come true.  I photographed an Eagle in the wild.  Right?  You decide…  Here’s the best photo of the bunch.

A Bald Eagle holding a freshly caught fish just above the water

It’s not gonna win any awards, but hey – it was a cool moment, and at least I can prove I was there!  This speedy encounter just made me want to photograph one of these beauties more than ever!  But again – I figured it’s not gonna happen when we were living in a suburban neighborhood with more people than wild creatures.

Be Careful What You Ask For

You Might Just Get It

You may already know that we recently moved from that suburban home.  But just before we began looking for a new home a couple of years ago, we were attending one of my son Tucker’s soccer games on an unfamiliar out-of-town field.  We arrived at the field and settled into our chairs, prepared to watch the game.

Glancing upwards at the sky, I saw a Bald Eagle soaring majestically over the field.  Since I had my camera with me to photograph Tucker’s soccer skills, I naturally jumped up and followed my new Eagle friend while he circled further and further from where we sat.  I tried with all my might to get a photo of that eagle.  My old trusty 70-200 lens couldn’t quite get me close enough to capture him that day, but I sure enjoyed his visit.

When I got back to my chair to watch the game, I turned to Dan and said, “I would love to have a house in the country.  One in which I could look up and see a bald eagle flying by, ‘cuz that was just cool”.  Friends, I am a firm believer that God works in wonderful ways because the house we ended up buying less than a year later is within just a few miles of that soccer field, and it wasn’t even on the market when we had that conversation.

A Bald Eagle Lives in our Backyard

Since moving, we have seen a few eagles soaring over our home.  I’m not positive, but it makes sense that the eagles we’ve seen probably include the one that I watched fly over Tucker’s soccer game that day.  Unfortunately, unless I have hours to sit and aim the camera at the vast sky, it’s really tricky to catch them in action;  Their visits are few and far between.  One day I found a wee bit of success and was able to get this shot:

2 Bald eagles flyer over a house
Look closely and you can see the white head and tail feathers

If you zoom in really close, you can see the sun shining off their trademark white head and tail feathers, but once again, this isn’t exactly the photo I was looking for, although this capture involved auspicious timing, and I was pretty excited!

Bald Eagle Inspiration

The thing is, to really authentically capture an eagle, you have to be where the eagles are.  Now, I know there are places to do that.  In fact, it is on my bucket list to go to Alaska on a whale watching and eagle spying trip, but that’s not anywhere in our near future, so I have been pretty content in knowing that photographing Eagles is something I’ll do down the road.

I will use my camera to capture not only eagles, but whales, grizzly bears, and a moose “someday”. Just you watch.

In the meantime, I am inspired by our local Bald Eagles, Bruce, and Ruth, who reside at John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids.  These two eagles mostly sit on their perches, watching the people watch them.  But hey – they are Bald Eagles, and therefore beautiful, so I will enjoy them.  You can read all about Eagle Bruce HERE  and Eagle Ruth HERE.   Both of their stories are wonderful stories of how humans can work so hard to preserve nature.  And I am so grateful for these two eagles, who are willing to pose for me whenever I feel the urge to practice.

Ruth the Bald Eagle posing
Ruth was a little shy last time I visited, but she did allow me this one quick shot.
Profile shot of Bruce the Bald Eagle
Bruce the bald eagle perches on a branch

Bald Eagle Preparation

Now that I’ve had a few opportunities to see Eagles, both captive and wild, my desire to photograph them for real in their natural environment is only growing.  Since I need to be absolutely ready for that opportunity, and since I have a few wild critters that have made their appearance known to me at the new house, I decided it was time to upgrade my equipment.

I did a little research, and last summer, I purchased a beautiful Tamron 150-600mm lens.  This sucker ought to get me close enough to see up an Eagle’s nostril, right?

Wait – do eagles have nostrils? As a matter of fact, they do! That hole in the top of their beak is indeed a nostril! But I digress…

Practice Makes Progress

Throughout the summer months, I used my new lens to practice photographing some of the birds visiting my backyard feeders.  I also took a few nature-drives to capture the many Whitetail Deer that reside in the natural areas not far from home.  If I ever actually get a chance to photograph a wild Bald Eagle, I will be one step closer to ready now!  In the meantime, please enjoy a couple of my fresh efforts at wildlife photography.  Be kind in your assessment, for it is truly an art form to capture wild animals in their natural habitat.

Cute raccoon eating out of an Oriole Feeder
This little guy paid us a bunch of visits last summer. He was young and had no reason to fear me and my camera. There is a window between us here. Safety first!
White-Tailed deer in golden hour light
This little deer was just starting to grow his fuzzy antlers.
A bright orange oriole on an oriole feeder
We had dozens of Baltimore Orioles at our feeder this year. That raccoon wasn't the only one enjoying our grape jelly!
Bald Eagle post - Hummingbird Nature shot
My favorite Hummingbird shot! This little guy just perched there like he was posing for me!

Dreams Do Come True

At this point, you’re probably wondering when I’m gonna get to the story of how I really got to photograph the wild Bald Eagles.  It starts just a couple of weeks ago when I joined a new Facebook group belonging to Mississippi River Bald Eagle photographers.

The photos in the group are not only stunning to look at but super inspirational as well.  I spent several days gazing at all of the beautiful photos before I realized something interesting… many of the birds in the photos were in Iowa or even Illinois…  Wait!?  What!?  I live very close to Illinois, and Iowa borders Illinois, so how far could it be for me? Indeed, these locations were closer than Alaska!

Never one to sit on my laurels when an idea strikes, I began asking questions, and then I pulled out my trusty map.  It turns out there are several feeding spots along the Mississippi River and the Iowa River that are known in the winter months to gather eagles.  A lot of eagles!  The closest location to me was a mere five-hour drive!  Of course – five hours is not at all daunting…  I can be there in a morning!

A Plan is Hatched

A quick conversation or two (maybe three) with my husband and Dan and Tucker were on board.  We had a plan!  We would call Tucker in for an excused absence at school, and Dan would take a well-earned vacation day on Friday, and we would pack up and head out.  Even better, Dan suggested we leave Thursday evening so we could get up bright and early on Friday morning to see our eagles!

A Side Rant

Not Related to Bald Eagles

Why is it when I feel excited about something, it seems like so many people are all doomy and gloomy and need to point out the negatives of my planned endeavor?  We live in a northern state, and of course, it is cold in February.  But as soon as we started telling people that we were going, we heard things like, “you’re crazy – it’s supposed to be -31 in Iowa this weekend” and “are you sure it’s safe?  The weather is predicting snow!” and “can’t you find an eagle around here?  Why drive so far”?  Of course, my logic brain tells me that these people mean well and are showing their concern, but it would be great to hear, “Wow!  That’s so exciting!  Have fun and be careful!”

Now when I think hard about it, I did hear that from several people.  In fact, truth be told, all of my photographer friends were excited for me.  But here’s a tiny insight into my brain.  One negative comment can sometimes completely derail me.  I find myself swirling into a mind-vortex of self-doubt, embarrassment, and even shame.  See, I don’t like it when I feel my actions are questioned.  When I am, I immediately think the other person is telling me I’m stupid and invalid.  What’s with that!?  And wait – maybe I am stupid.  What was I thinking!?  It’s cold.  Why go when I could be home on the couch?  What happens if our car breaks down?  What a dumb idea.  Everyone else knows more than me.

Negative Nellies Be Gone!

Why is it so easy to let a few negative nellies suck away my joy?  And are they really negative nellies?  Or just concerned friends showing their love and support?  I am working on all of that, but this is a place where I can be honest, and I’m betting I’m not alone in this feeling, so I thought I’d share.  If you are interested in hearing more about shame, read or watch just about anything from Brene Brown.  She’s an expert, and you’ll thank me for that.  Get started HERE.  

And Now Back to the Bald Eagle Story

Thanks for listening.  Now back to the story…  Once we had plans made, there was nothing left to do but wait for the big day!  It arrived, and Tucker and I were packed and ready.  As soon as Dan was to arrive home and my daughter-in-law picked up my grandson from his Thursday adventures with me, we were gonna hit the road!

Imagine my irritation when the dark clouds rolled in around 4 pm, and the snow started falling.  No – not falling, more like blasting.  In one hour, we went from dry roads to blizzard-conditions.  Yep.  It’s Michigan.  Shortly after the weather went rogue, I started seeing reports of I-80 in whiteout conditions.  There was even a 40 car pileup, including multiple semis, along one stretch of that highway, which was the road that we would be traveling on most of the way there.

Dan arrived home with white knuckles from his drive home from work, and together we decided that no adventure is worth putting ourselves in that kind of danger just for fun.  So, sadly, we put our feet up, snuggled under a blanket, turned on the TV, and commenced relaxing for the evening.  Dan, in his infinite wisdom, said, “we’ll see how the weather is in the morning, and maybe we can leave then.”  I doubted it would be any better, but I smiled politely and agreed.

Pink socked feet with tv background

Wrong Again!

Once again, I am proven wrong in this story because we awoke to blue skies and sunshine!  The storm had passed through and by 8 am, we checked the highway conditions map for Michigan and Iowa and found that the roads looked green for go all the way over to our destination, So we packed up the car and hit the road!

dirty windshild with clear road ahead
If you can see it through our dirty window, you'll note that the roads ahead are clear and dry and the sky is blue!
Driver and backseat adolescent in the back seat on the way to photograph bald eagles
My view the entire way there. Anyone else have a preteen that looks like this way too much of the time?

Our drive from West Michigan to Iowa was smooth and we traveled at full speed the entire way.  A good audiobook is a must on a long road trip, so we popped in See Me by Nicholas Sparks along the way to keep our minds occupied.  We made a quick, impromptu stop at “Two Girls and a Cupcake,” hoping for a yummy snack, but sadly, all of the cupcakes were already sold out for the day when we arrived.

Bald Eagle post - pink building with Two Girls and a Cupcake sign
I loved this super cute pink building! No worries, Two Girls - I'll be back for a cupcake on my next trip!
Author with a pink gorilla statue
I can only imagine how many people have photos with this darling pink ape!

Next Stop - Bald Eagles!

We continued down the road until, at long last, after passing at least 30 cars and trucks in the ditches along the side of the highway due to yesterday’s storm, we arrived at our first destination, Iowa River Power Restaurant (IRPR).  IRPR in Coralville, Iowa, has a boardwalk that runs behind it overlooking the Iowa River and the feeding ground for the Bald Eagles.  As soon as we pulled into the parking lot, we saw the eagles flying above.  I was so excited!  Dan was barely in our spot when I leaped from the truck with gear in tow and took off toward the eagles.  For the next hour or so, this is what any passerby saw of me and my camera.

Photographer in pink puffy coat photographing bald eagles
Every part of me covered by that pink coat was warm. My hands and nose about froze off, though!

The sun was out, the birds were active, and I was in my happy place.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, so to see 10-12 Bald Eagles in one location was amazing, especially because they were perching in the trees for my viewing pleasure and swooping around over the water.  I was surprised to see hundreds of geese floating around on some of the ice atop the water, but I later learned that they are regulars there as well.

After nearly freezing my nose and fingers off, despite using my Hot Hands heated hand warmers, we climbed back into the truck, cold but excited to be there and see real, live eagles close up and personal. 

The Call of... Dinner!

We decided that it was a good time to take a food break since we hadn’t yet eaten, so we found a nice, warm restaurant to enjoy.  Dine-in restaurants have been closed in Michigan for a few months due to Covid-19, so just sitting in a restaurant was a fun bonus to this trip.  We enjoyed a delicious meal at the Longhorn Steakhouse, and I brought my laptop in for a quick upload of all of my photos from the morning.

I was mildly disappointed in my results, but I did have a few keepers.  After dinner, we chose to head on down the road back toward home and find a place to stay the night near some of the Lock & Dam locations along the Mississippi River.  Dan and Tucker were hoping for a swim in the hotel pool, and I was eagerly anticipating some editing of today’s photos.  Sadly, when we arrived at our hotel, we found the pool closed due to Covid.  The boys were a bit bummed, but we settled in for some cable tv and editing and were all asleep earlier than our usual time.  The cold weather really sucks the energy out of ya!  Here is my favorite shot from that first day:

A Bald Eagle soaring with a blue sky background
Just look at that gorgeous wingspan!!!

A Bald Eagle Adventure - Day 2

We awoke the next morning to cloudy skies.  Our first destination, Lock and Dam #13, was just down the road about 15 minutes, so after a fast continental breakfast at the hotel, we were on the road!  This location was even better in some ways than yesterday’s because there were many more eagles on site.  We also found that I could sit in the car and get some photos while keeping my nose and hands a bit warmer.  Unfortunately, every time I stepped out of the vehicle, my glasses would immediately fog up to the point of blindness, making it very difficult to photograph flying Bald Eagles!

At one point, I set all of the settings up for Dan and handed over the camera with quick instructions on how to manually focus.  He wandered around for quite a long time, having fun with the camera.  I may have to hook him up with one of my spares next time.  While we were at LD13, we met a lovely man from 12 minutes down the road who is fortunate enough to come and view the Eagles whenever he would like. We also met a fellow Michigander who was super excited to spot the giant Bald Eagle nest on the road into the parking lot.

Man in a red coat holding a camera to photograph bald eagles
I took this picture from the warmth of the truck. That man of mine looks pretty good with a camera, even if he is holding the camera in the chicken wing pose.
a Bald Eagle Nest sitting high in a tree
We were hoping for some action in that nest, but it was pretty quiet the day we visited.

Learn about that Chicken Wing Pose here:  Three Simple Reasons Your Photos Are Blurry

Lock & Dam 15 Eagles, Here We Come!

About 40 minutes down the road, we found Lock & Dam #15, which was mostly closed due to construction, but we were so happy to see a couple of Eagles perched in the trees just above our heads.  These shots are my favorites from the day.

A Bald Eagle's talon gripping a tree branch
Just look at that amazing talon gripping the branch. I took this shot standing directly below him.
A Bald Eagle perched in a tree
So cold and so statuesque. This bird is overlooking the Mississippi River, no doubt watching for his next meal.
A Bald Eagle perched in a tree from behind
I love seeing all of the definition in the feathers. God's work is amazing, is it not?

The End of our Bald Eagle Adventure

Once we finished taking these photos, it was sadly time to head down the road toward home.  We climbed back into the truck, ready for the 5-hour trip back to Michigan and our cozy chairs and fireplace.  Thank goodness we had the rest of our audiobook to enjoy.  I was able to plug my laptop in and look at photos along the way.  I was less than thrilled with the number of keeper shots I achieved, but I am usually a bit hard on myself, so no surprise here.  In the end, we had a fantastic adventure, complete with a few lessons, which I will outline here for you!

Lessons from our Bald Eagle Adventure

Bald Eagle Lesson #1

Be Flexible

You never know when you will suddenly need to change your plans when you’re on an adventure.  We had to make adjustments on the fly, from our atrocious weather to forgetting my camera batteries to the closed cupcake shop and swimming pool.  Sometimes the best adventures are the least predictable!

Bald Eagle Lesson #2

Pack Carefully

When I say pack carefully, I don’t necessarily mean “pack a lot,” I mostly mean to double-check before you head out.  Unfortunately, when our plans changed at the last minute Thursday evening, I decided to take the opportunity to freshen up my batteries and put them on the chargers.  Friday morning, I forgot to take them off the wall chargers and put them in my bag, so I walked off without them.

About 2 hours down the road, I remembered that they were still on the chargers at home.  Eeek!  Fortunately, a quick Google search revealed a camera store along our route.  We made a speedy side-stop to The Camera Corner in Davenport, Iowa, where I picked up a fresh new battery and charger for a mere $89.  Crisis averted!  But next time, I will be a bit more careful about making my list and checking it twice.

Bald Eagle Lesson #3

Study your camera settings before It's time to shoot!

Since I’m new at Wildlife Photography and mostly an indoor sort of girl, I haven’t had much practice shooting in single degree weather.  On this trip, I learned that it’s important to have a good idea of how you want your camera settings set up before you exit the vehicle.  When it is 7 degrees outside, and a bitter wind is biting your face, you don’t want to fuss any more than necessary on the fly.  I recommend the following settings as a starting point:

Try these settings for Bald Eagle Photography

Shutter Speed

Shutter Speed – fast for moving birds – like around 1700 for flying Bald Eagles, especially if you’re fortunate enough to catch one diving into the water for dinner.  If your subjects are sitting still and perching in a tree, you can lower your shutter speed to lower your ISO; but remember that you dropped it aggressively before shooting at one of the fly-bys, or you will get a bunch of crazy motion blur!

Aperture

Aperture – You can start with your aperture set around 8.  This ensures that you will get an entire bird in focus within your depth of field, whether he’s flying close or further from you.  Consider your background as well.  If the birds are right on the edge of a treeline or a background area, then you’ll want to open up that aperture (smaller #) for extra light and extra bokeh, so the Bald Eagle stands out.  If your subject is flying in the open sky, go ahead and stop your aperture down some (bigger #) so that you can get every detail crisp.

ISO

ISO – I suggest keeping your ISO on Automatic for fast-moving subjects, like flying Bald Eagles.  It is much easier for you to make adjustments quickly for your SS and aperture if you’re not worried about that ISO.  You will get some high ISO shots, which will produce more grain in your images, but you can reduce that graininess in post-processing as necessary.  It is better to have an image in sharp focus with a bit of grain than an image of a blurry Bald Eagle with no grain at all, right?

Bald Eagle settings graphic
Print this out and add it to your camera bag so you have a great starting point handy.

One Final Note

If you enjoy seeing Eagles and other large birds, consider this interesting information that I learned shortly after returning from my trip.  As a hunter and fisherman, Dan was not surprised to hear this information, but it was new to me and it makes me sad. 

Many of the Bald Eagles in the area where I was shooting are tagged and tracked.  In fact, it is a fun bonus to capture a photo of one of the tagged and known birds.  Sadly, one of the tagged birds in the area, known affectionately as D35, and one of a pair of brothers, was found dead, killed by lead poisoning.  Please take a moment to read this post about lead poisoning from my friends at Raptor Resources.  There is really great information here.  And we all know, information is power.

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