The American bald eagle is a magnificent and fascinating raptor.
In 1782 it was proclaimed the National Bird of the newly formed United States of America. Its proponents cited bald eagles’ nativism to North America and their beauty, strength, resilience, and abundance, but farmers viewed them as disposable pests to be shot on sight, and their habitat was diminished as the country expanded westward.
While protective legislation in the mid-1940s generated a recovery, the widespread application of the 20th century pesticide DDT nearly extinguished the species, with only about 400 pairs remaining in the continental United States by 1963. Banning the pesticide, along with the protections afforded by the Endangered Species Acts of 1966 and 1978, led to a full recovery of the population by the year 2000.
A significant threat to the health and success of raptor populations today is poisoning by lead ammunition, which can contaminate the eagles’ food sources.
I grew up in California, where virtually no bald eagles existed for decades, and after studying wildlife biology in college, I had a strong sense of loss and curiosity about the bald eagle.
In the early 1990s I spent many spring seasons photographing bald eagles in Southeast Alaska’s Stikine River Delta, where they annually gathered to gorge on spawning smelt known as eulachon, or hooligan. These efforts were frustrating, because it was extremely difficult to access the area, a tidal zone.
One night, we anchored a small barge on the flats at high tide; in the morning we were grounded, but the eagles kept just out of portrait range. I dreamed up a crazy blind that looked like a dead tree stump; it worked well, but had to be hauled in and out of the flats with the tides. I did secure enough good images to illustrate an article in National Wildlife Magazine. Meanwhile, other photographers were flooding the market with great shots of Alaskan eagles by baiting them with thrown fish. Regretfully, I moved on to other subjects.
I was very excited when, in 2013, a colleague, the photographer and cave explorer Brent McGregor, shared with me the location of an active bald eagle nest located in a state park just 30 miles from my new home in Oregon.
Carefully constructed, high in a tall ponderosa in a magnificent river canyon, this particular nest is uniquely visible from a cliff top—but more than 200 feet away! While the nest’s position serves to protect it from any human disturbance, reaching out that far to capture meaningful images of adult eagles and their hatchlings is a significant challenge.
By 2013, however, digital imaging technology had advanced to the point where I was fully equipped to undertake a new eagle project. Coordinating closely with the park’s staff, I regularly photographed the nest that year and in each of the subsequent years, producing portraits of the nesting cycle and, in 2017, an educational 4K video program which is now featured in the park’s welcome center.
American bald eagles mate for life and repeatedly return to a successful site, improving and enlarging the nest each year. In the Northwest, two or three eggs are typically laid in March; the downy little eaglets hatch about five weeks later. By the age of one month, the scrappy little birds are not so cute, with crazy pinfeathers, but by two months they are beginning to look like eagles, exercising their wings, hopping up and down in the nest, and in some cases engaging in food competition with their sibling(s). Fledging usually happens within twelve weeks of hatching; the adults continue to feed the youngsters in the area, sometimes even back in the nest, for several more months.
Over five seasons, I’ve spent at least 500 hours observing and documenting the bald eagles’ nesting behavior from courtship to fledging, while talking with other park visitors and photographers about the eagles, their biology and behavior, their unique location, and the imaging technology that makes my work achievable.
For this project, I use Canon’s full-frame EOS 5D MK IV and EOS 1D X MK II bodies for their superior resolution, fast capture rates and high ISO capabilities. To reach out, I use a Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM or EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM lens, stacked with EF 1.4X III and EF 2X III tele-extenders, achieving focal lengths of 1400 or 2240mm, respectively. At those ranges, a close-up portrait of a newly hatched eaglet can be accomplished, but not without very serious long-lens techniques to eliminate motion and vibration. That means a sturdy tripod to support the camera/lens combination, activating “Live View” mode to lock up the mirror and view the action from the camera’s LCD, and accomplishing the captures hands-free with a remote release or by wireless transmittal to a smart phone or tablet.
For hand-held capture of action sequences, such as adults flying into the nest and youngsters fledging, I keep an EOS 1D X MK II body with 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L MK II zoom and EF 1.4X MK III at the ready.
Some of my most satisfying photography in the last two years has been accomplished with the 4K video capability of my Canon cameras. Now I can capture high-resolution, close-up video of the eaglets and the adults, both in the nest and flying around the area, capturing prey, interacting, and feeding. And I can extract single frames from the video, both in-camera and in post-capture processing, that are detailed enough to stand alone as still images. This technology is a game changer for wildlife photography.
Canon Explorer of Light - George Lepp
George Lepp discusses his career and passion for photography in our series of videos introducing our Explorers of Light.
For more information on George, please visit his Explorer of Light bio page.