When I was a kid, the only place I ever saw a bald eagle was on the tail side of a quarter. The symbol of the United States was then a seriously endangered species, thanks to hunting and the widespread use of DDT, a pesticide which caused unsupportably thin eggshells. (The eagles would try to lay on their eggs to keep them warm and instead would crush them.) When I was in school, there were only a few hundred mating pairs of eagles left, and the chances that my kids would ever see an eagle seemed slim.
It's worth remembering, in these days when conservatives say there's nothing we can do about climate change, that the environmental movement saved the bald eagle. (If you want to read a good account of how, here's an article by my friend Larry Van Dyne that will tell you.) Environmentalists lobbied for laws designating the eagle an endangered species and making it illegal to hunt them. Environmentalists lobbied for and got a ban on DDT use. And those measures worked. Today there are more than 100,000 nesting pairs of bald eagles in North America, and the birds range from Alaska to Florida. They're no longer considered endangered.
But in my mind, bald eagles remain rare, almost mythical creatures. So when I read a couple of years ago about the eagles at Conowingo Dam, where U.S. Route 1 crosses the Susquehanna River in northern Maryland, I was intrigued. It seems that every autumn at the dam, eagles hold what amounts to a party, climaxing in November. They feed on fish, like shad, that move downstream as winter approaches. The fish get trapped in large numbers by the dam. Then they're flushed through when water is released, and they float in a bit of a daze near the surface. For eagles, as well as many other predatory birds, it's like an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet.
The power company that operates Conowingo Dam sponsors an eagle photography contest each year, and I have seen some of the winners. They're impressive--close-up images of fierce eagles in soaring flight, backlit by the sun so their white tail feathers glow. I had no illusions about winning any contests, but I wanted to capture an eagle on the wing.
I tried a couple of years ago to do it. But I had only a light, 270 mm lens. On that day, the eagles in the Conowingo area were over on the far side of the river, maybe a quarter of a mile from the little park on the south bank that is the best vantage point for photography. At least, someone with high-powered binoculars told me there were eagles off the opposite bank. Through my lens, I could only see specks in the distance. But I learned one thing. The photographers who had gathered had serious equipment--big, high-powered lenses with several times the magnification of my lens, mounted on heavy-duty tripods The little riverside park where they gathered looked like a Civil War artillery battery, bristling with cannon.
So, this year, when I decided to try again to get an eagle photograph, I obtained some major gear. Ritz Camera in Bethesda, MD, has inherited the rental equipment stock that was once owned by the bankrupt Penn Camera-Calumet Photo stores. I rented a 400 mm lens that was about three feet long and weighed about ten pounds. I also got a gadget to screw on to the lens that multiplied its magnification by 1.7 times, so I'd have an effective 650 mm. I got a big tripod with the advanced swivel head. I got some instruction on how to put all this together, along with a sobering lien on my credit card--a deposit of $2,100. The gear I was renting retails for upwards of $8,000, and the deposit was what I'd be liable for if I broke or lost it.
I met up with my friend Mike Mitchell and we drove north for about 90 minutes. We got to the little park, and we saw the usual battery of long lenses. The photographers who chase eagles look like artillerists in another respect. They often wear camouflage and their lens are covered in camouflage fabric. I guess if they're shooting in the woods, it makes them less conspicuous. Lined up on a terrace overlooking the river, though, they couldn't be more conspicuous.
Not that the eagles, gulls, heron and other birds feeding below the dam that day cared at all. They were intent on their prey. Mike and I staked out a sliver of empty space, and I assembled my big lens and my tripod. "Here comes one on the right," someone called out, and a hundred lenses swung downstream. An eagle, its wings beating imperiously, flew toward the dam, soared upward to its left, flew over a stand of tall trees behind us, then came back down for another pass at the river. I could hear the sound of motorized shutters clicking furiously like angry bees. I aimed and shot.
And I got nothing. It turns out that a big, long lens like the one I has isn't easy to use. I didn't know how to aim it. I'd point in what I thought was the direction of an eagle flying over the river. But in my viewfinder, I'd see only gray water or gray clouds or the brush on the opposite bank. On the rare occasions when I actually saw an eagle in the viewfinder, I'd try to focus. But by the time I got the little focal point on the bird, the bird would have flown on. I got a lot of nothing. I got smudgy bits of wing or beak on the edge of the frame. Nothing was in focus, except, once in a while, the wires that carry the electricity generated at the dam. I shot more than two hundred frames and they were all more or less wasted.
After a while, I all but gave up trying to photograph the eagles and just watched them as they soared and swooped and went about their business. It was the smartest thing I did all morning.
Finally, an eagle caught a fish in front of me, then flew into the trees behind me to eat it. I turned my lens around and managed, after many mistakes, to find it in the tree, perched on a limb, digesting its food. The eagle stayed there for many minutes, moving only its head, which seems able to swivel 180 degrees. I got the shot below, the best of 253 frames I shot that morning. I like it, but it's not what I set out after. It felt almost like I'd shot it in a zoo. It felt like my effort wasn't worthy of the great bird I wanted to capture in flight.
The next time you see a brilliant photo of an eagle, or any wild bird, in a magazine or on a web site, don't take it for granted. The photographer who shot it doesn't simply have good equipment. The photographer has patience and skill.