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Bald Eagles

Bald Eagles have always held a fascination for me. When I first came to Montana over forty years ago, I seldom saw any. Now, I see at least one almost every day afield.

The Bald Eagle's recovery is an American success story. Forty years ago, the bald eagle, our national symbol, was in danger of extinction throughout most of its range. Habitat destruction and degradation, illegal shooting, and the contamination of its food source, due to use of the pesticide DDT, decimated the eagle population. Habitat protection afforded by the Endangered Species Act, the federal government’s banning of DDT, and conservation actions taken by the American public helped Bald Eagles make a remarkable recovery.

USFWS, Midwest Region Website. Some days I have seen as many as twenty separate birds, and not at salmon spawning streams or cattle calving operations. Just single birds, mating pairs, juveniles, and eaglets on the nest. I Have heard them scream and quietly chirp. I have watched them as they watch anxiously and call for a mate or offspring so high up or far away that I cannot see it. I would indeed be a poorer person if I never saw an eagle fly.

I do not wish to co-opt indigenous cultural beliefs, but I have always felt a certain spiritual connection to Bald Eagles (I now seek that with all animals I photograph). I wouldn’t call it a “spirit animal,” but I would often see myself soaring like an eagle as I pray.

I have been chasing two particular shots for the last few years. One is the Eagle on the Wing. It is much harder to photograph, at least to my standards, than you might think. First, perhaps obviously, you need a long lens, which presents its own set of difficulties.

I want to get close, so my 150-600 mm Sigma is fully extended. This narrows the field of view, so it is difficult to find the bird in flight - it’s a moving target so-to-speak. Once you get the bird in the view finder with the shutter release partly depressed, you can allow the auto focus to perform its function. Once the bird is in focus, you can fully press the shutter release. This operation will not produce a sharp, detailed photograph with the camera on automatic settings. It requires manual control of shutter speeds and ISOs.

The second shot I have been after is the close-up bust of the Bald Eagle. The tricky thing about this shot is that it will likely require significant enlargement. Depending on the raw exposure, this often results in digital noise, or what we used to call “grainy” photographs. Noise and lack of focus are the death knell of any photograph no matter good the shot might otherwise be. Thus, manual exposure is again required because low ISO = minimal noise. Lots of sunshine and fast shutter speeds help a great deal too. They also make for a deep blue sky as a background.

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