Shooting an American Bald Eagle

American Bald Eagle
Shutter: 1/500, Aperture: f/5.0, Lens: 70-200mm, ISO: 100

I just spent the week on the Eastern Shore near Ocean City, Maryland, and I googled places where I could spot a bald eagle. Ayers Creek Adventures came up. I thought it would be awesome to hike through the woods a little and try to get a photo the majestic bird. But the folks there said the nests weren’t really viewable from foot. I’d need to hop into a kayak.

Heron and an Egret
Shutter: 1/1000, Aperture: f/3.2, Lens: 70-200mm, ISO: 100

For a while now I’ve wanted to get a pic of an American Bald Eagle. I can be an outdoorsy guy. I’m an Eagle Scout, I can hold my own in the woods, but I’m not really a kayaker. Not only am I not of the water breed, but I was extremely nervous taking my Canon 40D and my beloved (and expensive) 70-200mm L-series lens out on the water. I was told the waterway was still-water and it would be tough to actually capsize, so it would be perfectly reasonable to keep my gear dry. I talked myself into believing I could do that. (I felt like this the whole time)

Blue Heron takes flight
Shutter: 1/400, Aperture: f/5.6, Lens: 70-200mm, ISO: 100

So I arrived at Ayers Creek and they outfitted me with a PFD and a kayak. Because I wanted to sit and wait for specific birds to show up, I was on my own outside of a guided tour. They gave me a laminated Google Earth print-out with some landmarks to look for in order to locate some nests and wished me luck. I had my gear in a dry bag, and started paddling down the creek. I spotted the first nest pretty easily, but didn’t see any eagles nearby. I kept looking up, but each time my attention was grabbed, it was just a seagull. After awhile I happened upon this Blue Heron, and got a bunch of shots of him walking around. Then he took flight and I got a lot of nice photos of him taking off (be sure to check those out in the gallery below). I was really happy with the focus I happened to nab. I really like how the background and foreground are blurred out, and I caught the water drops from his feet.

Juvenile Bald Eagle sitting in a tree
Shutter: 1/200, Aperture: f/2.8, Lens: 70-200mm, ISO: 100

So after getting some cool shots of the heron, I heard what I thought to be an eagle cry. (It wasn’t quite like on TV, but it was certainly distinctive). So as I was paddling in that area, I saw a gigantic brown bird fly and land in the trees. I had assumed this was a juvenile bald eagle (doesn’t have the distinctive white feathers yet) and started scanning the tree branches. I saw a lump, so I started taking pics. I was pretty sure it was a juvenile, but worried I was getting all excited about a turkey vulture. Those talons were yellow however, and vultures don’t usually hang out in trees, so I was convinced myself it was an eagle. The biggest problem was that I couldn’t really see my photos in the bright sunlight, so I underexposed, overexposed, changed aperture, changed focus modes, everything I could think of, because I knew I wouldn’t be going back anytime soon for a do over. I found out later this was indeed a juvenile. After I got this photo, I told myself that I had technically done what I came to do, to get pics of a bald eagle. It wasn’t quite the familiar white-headed eagle I was looking for, but I had been out there almost 2 hours and it was getting really damned hot (95°) and approaching mid-day. So I started paddling back, but constantly scanning the treeline for a white head.

Shutter: 1/640, Aperture: f/6.3, Lens: 70-200mm, ISO: 100

I saw this. I couldn’t believe it, so I snapped some pics. Through my lens I could see that it was definitely the bald eagle I was looking for. So I paddled closer and took more photos. Just like with the juvenile, I shot under and over exposed. I went all over the place with aperture. (Because I was zoomed in all the way, and in a moving kayak, I wanted a quick shutter so I wouldn’t be wiggling the frame too much. Luckily it was super bright out, so I could afford smaller apertures for a wider field of focus.) I snapped pics the entire way to a spot where I got as close as I could, and gently wedged the tip of the kayak in the marsh to keep me still.

American Bald Eagle
Shutter: 1/640, Aperture: f/5.6, Lens: 70-200mm, ISO: 100

Then I did something I’m not necessarily proud of. I decided to get a few shots in full auto as insurance in case I was really blowing it with my haphazard exposures. I got back to my laptop and was going through the 560 pics I snapped and this was the first real clear eagle shot I got; the one I shot in auto. I can proudly say that the other photos in the gallery below were all shot in manual, but this “winner” shot was taken with the green square. For shame. But it wasn’t the only good shot I got, just the first.

Juvenile Bald Eagle soaring
Shutter: 1/1000, Aperture: f/2.8, Lens: 70-200mm, ISO: 100

I really wanted to get some photos of the bald eagle soaring, but he wasn’t moving from his perch. Then I heard the juvenile’s squawk again and pointed right up into the air and caught him soaring instead. As he was screeching, the adult was calling back. This was one of the coolest natural interactions I’ve witnessed in nature. It was almost as if the juvenile was saying “I’m free!” and his dad was calling out “BE HOME BY DINNER.” Besides getting to hear them talk to each other, I also caught this cool shot of the eagle with his mouth open, below.

Shutter: 1/1000, Aperture: f/2.8, Lens: 70-200mm, ISO: 100

In all of this, I was most successful with a smaller aperture (f/5.0 at least), and I learned to trust myself in risky situations. This whole experience reinforced that you have to take risks for pay-offs like this. You have to play to win. I got a little bit of a zen experience being in a kayak, by myself, and I feel pretty accomplished finding the eagle on my own. But I won’t be taking my gear out in a tiny boat again anytime soon.

Update: I’ve since gone to Conowingo Dam and shot more bald eagles. Keep reading!

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2 Responses to Shooting an American Bald Eagle

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  2. Suzy Taylor says:

    Thanks so much for visiting Ayers Creek Adventures and taking these fantastic photos. We really enjoyed reading the blog and viewing the photos. Beautiful shots.