Our days in Chicago put me within reach of some great opportunities to photograph bald eagles. The rivers in Illinois often freeze during the winter and any locations where the water stays open are popular with birds that need access to fish. The lock and dam complexes along the big rivers provide the perfect places since they water flowing over the dam makes for an ice free spot and it doesn’t hurt that the fish can often get stunned as they come over the dam which makes them an easy target for the eagles.
I made a number of trips out to photograph the birds. Starved Rock State Park was the first place we tried and, while we saw a lot off eagles and they were not too far away, the lighting was pretty unfriendly. Some further research showed that the Mississippi from Dubuque down to the Quad Cities was a better bet and I ended up making several trips out there. The first time we stayed out there and incorporated the search for the birds into our visit. Latterly, I knew where to go and made a day trip from Chicago. I also learned to not worry about getting there early but to focus on being there at the end of the day when the light was at its best. Even so, you never knew whether you would have good weather, cooperation wind and whether there would be many birds.
I have been there when there were more birds than I could count. I have also been there when it is pretty sparse. However, it has never been a total bust. You get both immature and adult birds. Depending on how much ice there is, they can be scattered along the river or confined to near your location. After trying a few spots, I ended up at Lock and Dam 14 with a bunch of guys I knew. Photographing birds in the winter seems to be a popular pastime for guys who spend their summers photographing planes!
The shots here were taken across a number of visits. Now we have moved west, I doubt I shall be back at this location for a while. However, I have some great memories of being there and also testing the qualities of cold weather clothing, gloves, hand and feet warmers and camera batteries! Good times.
The eagles and the ducks got our attention but the gulls were also around on the Mississippi. Gulls don’t tend to get much interest but, if you have been standing around for a while waiting for something to happen, the gulls start to be a bit more interesting. Is this the bird shooting equivalent of going ugly early? They even did some diving for us close in so I guess I should be a bit more grateful. We put it down to tracking practice and we will stick with that I think.
Just a quick joke. I was out shooting wildlife when there were a couple of airliners overhead. It is a bit early in the year for airshows but I guess this might count as my first crossing shot of two jets for the year. Hopefully there will be a few more!
The eagle trip to the Mississippi provided plenty of times when the big birds were either elsewhere or just sitting in the trees wondering what to do next. This meant either doing nothing ourselves of having a practice on the other wildlife passing by. There were a few ducks in flight. Since these are small targets, they have to be reasonably close to make a shot even worth trying. However, a couple of times they came close so why not?
It has been a couple of years since I last made a trip out to the Mississippi to take pictures of the bald eagles that fish out there. Last winter it was pretty warm and my schedule was a bit busy. Warm weather means the river doesn’t freeze up and the birds can fish anywhere they like. When it gets cold, the ice means fishing is harder to do and they tend to gather at the dams along the river since they will usually have some open water just downstream.
This winter hasn’t been consistently cold either but it has been a while and I don’t know whether I will still be here next year so, with a good looking weather forecast, I decided to go. I was not alone in this with the number of people at Lock and Dam 14 in Iowa far larger than I have ever seen before. Combined with the relatively open river, this meant the people were healthily outnumbering the eagles.
However, there were a few birds in the air at various times. Sadly, with a lot of open water, they could choose where to fish. Also, the wind was coming from across the river so they tended to make their fishing runs away from us. Consequently, there were lots of eagle butt shots to be had but not many front views. Even so, I was with some friends so it was a good day to be out and there were a few shots that made the trip a success, even if I didn’t get anything as good as I have managed in previous years.