Arkansas Wildlife Blog and Gallery
Buffalo National River and NW Arkansas
NW Arkansas has a permanent population of bald eagles, but the very best time to photograph eagles is in the winter roughly from Thanksgiving through Valentines Day. Each year eagles migrate from the north to escape the cold and find better feeding grounds. We start looking for the migration right after the first cold blasts from the north. In 2008, that was around the first week in December.
Photographing Bald Eagles
Getting pictures the eagles is a perfect complement to getting great elk pictures. If you have looked at my Boxley Valley Photo Planner you know that elk photography will not fill your day. The very best times to photograph elk are in the mornings and evenings, and personally I much prefer the mornings. During the winter, great bald eagle shooting starts about the time that the best elk shooting stops. The eagles are not plentiful, but they are fairly common in the valley, especially around the mill pond area. If it turns out the bald eagles don't cooperate, we also have trumpeter swans at the mill pond, generally arriving around the third week in December. The mill pond is a perfect frame for shooting both species.
During my last eagle shoot three different eagles came to the mill pond. Generally there will be only one, but I have seen as many as three a few times. I don't find bald eagles to be very timid. Generally they will not spook as many other birds and they give you time to get the shot.
I shoot the eagles with 100-400 zoom and check my histogram carefully to make sure my exposure is good. When you shoot a perching bird like the one on the right, the exposure will be metered mostly on the background, not the bird. For that reason, the correct exposure can vary a lot depending on time of day and the reflectivity of the background. This can and will change during your shoot so pay attention. Using a tripod is a good idea, but not essential if you have a lot of light, a fast shutter speed, and are good at hand holding. Most people will use one.
This is exactly the picture I wanted (not that that ever matters to the eagles) as this bald eagle jumped off the snag and flew away. I consider this my best bald eagle picture to date, but many people prefer perched eagles.
The bald eagle picture on the left is pretty standard except that this bird is actually facing away and looking back over his shoulder. This type of picture is pretty easy to get and a nice addition to your portfolio.
I much prefer wildlife pictures that tell a story. The picture on the right is of a bald eagle being harassed by crows. It is more interesting because it is a snapshot of life in the wild.
Crows are fearless and will attack eagles and hawks and drive them away. Sometimes eagles will fly away after these attacks. If you are prepared you can get some decent flight photos.
This was a tough get. I was focused on an eagle in a tree top, hand-held, manual focus at 560mm (adding my 1.4x multiplier to my zoom lens). Fortunately there was a lot of light, and I was stopped down to about f11 and still had a fast shutter speed.
This eagle actually visited the one I was focused on, fussed with it a bit, then flew on. I manually focused as best I could and shot away. (Thank god for digital.)
The image is not in perfect focus, but with a little teasing out in photoshop, I could get a decent result, at least suitable for the web and small print applications.
To stop action, don't be afraid to go to a higher ISO setting even if you have good light. High ISO settings in good light generate less noise than in low light, and the advantage you get is faster shutter speeds that can be critical to getting a decent result, especially in flight pictures like this one. I will kick my ISO up to 800 for the faster shutter speeds and smaller apertures, and worry about the noise later.