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Canon See Impossible

George Lepp - Photographing the American Bald Eagle

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Canon See Impossible - George Lepp - Photographing the American Bald Eagle
Adult eagles mate for life and repeatedly utilize a successful nest, improving and enlarging it each year. The male (left) and the larger female (right) equally participate in the brooding, care and feeding of the young. Canon EOS 5D MK IV w/EF 800mm f/5.6L lens and EF1.4X MK III tele-extender (1120mm). 1/500 sec @ f/13, ISO 1600.
A National Symbol

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.

Bald Eagles in the Wild

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.

Canon See Impossible - George Lepp - Adult eagle at top of towering nest tree
A classic portrait of the adult male, perched at the very top of the towering nest tree. Canon EOS-1D X MK II w/EF 500mm f/4L MK II lens and EF 2X MK III and EF 1.4X MK III tele-extenders joined by a Canon 12mm extension tube (1400mm). 1/320 sec. @ f/11, ISO 800.
An Extraordinary Opportunity

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.

Canon See Impossible - George Lepp - Location on edge of cliff overlooking river canyon
Lepp on location for a day of eagle-nest photography. In this photograph, the nest is just visible near the top of the tall ponderosa pine at left. Lepp is positioned more than 200 feet away, on the edge of a cliff overlooking the river canyon. For still shots of the nest, he’s working at 1400mm with a Canon EOS 5D MK IV and EF 500mm f/4L MK II lens with two tele-extenders. At the ready for shots of the eagles in flight is the EOS-1 D X MK II with the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L MK II zoom lens with 1.4X tele-extender (560mm). [Photo Credit: Kathryn Vincent Lepp]
The Nesting Cycle

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.

Canon See Impossible - George Lepp - Week 1 - Adult female eagle and baby eaglet in nest
In its first week of life, a newly hatched eaglet, closely protected by the adult female, is fluffy but already showing raptor attitude. The downy feathers of its sibling are just barely visible nestled under the adult for warmth. This close-up from some 200 feet away was captured at 1600mm, using a Canon EOS 5D MK IV w/EF 800mm f/5.6L lens and EF 2X MK III tele-extender. 1/500 sec @ f/19, ISO 800.
Canon See Impossible - George Lepp - Week 4.5 - Adult eagle feeding eaglets
At the end of the first month, the eaglets are actively competing for food; usually, the first hatched is dominant. At this stage, the adults bring fish, birds, and small mammals to the nest, and feed small pieces to the youngsters. This capture at 1400mm was accomplished with a Canon EOS-1D X MK II and an EF 500mm f/5.6L MK II lens with both an EF 2X MK III and an EF 1.4X MK III tele-extender. The two tele-extenders were joined by a Canon 12mm extension tube, and ISO 1600 compensated for the loss of three stops of light. 1/500 sec @ f/11.
Technology and Technique

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.

Canon See Impossible - George Lepp - Week 9 - Eaglets beating wings
At nine weeks, the eaglets are well into their flight exercises, and in subsequent weeks will develop their skills further, beating their wings and launching themselves in short arcs across the nest. When this behavior is simultaneous, chaos ensues, and collisions with the nesting material, surrounding branches, and each other are not uncommon. This image is a frame grab from a 4K video clip captured at 60 fps; Canon’s EOS Movie Utility was used to isolate the individual frame. The Canon EOS-1D X MK II body w/EF 500mm f/4L MK II lens and EF1.4X MK III tele-extender capture at 700mm. But the camera’s 4K crop factor adds 1.38X magnification, giving a final reach of 966 mm. 1/720 sec @ f/11, ISO 3200.
Canon See Impossible - George Lepp - Week 12 - Fledgling in flight
At approximately twelve weeks, the eaglets become fledglings. The downward arc of their first flight takes them to a ground perch, where the adults will continue to feed them. Once their flight becomes more stable and predictable, they occasionally will return to the nest for feeding. Before the next nesting season, they will leave the adults’ territory and are very vulnerable. The juveniles do not achieve the iconic white head and tail, and sexual maturity, until they are four-to-five years old. This is another 4K video frame grab captured at 60 fps with the Canon EOS-1D X MK II and EF 500mm f/4L MK II lens. The video’s 1.38X crop factor yields 690mm. 1/1000th sec @ f/16, ISO 1600.

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 See Impossible - George Lepp - Adult eagle flying with rabbit in claws
The adult male brings a newly captured cottontail rabbit to the nest. As the eaglets mature, the competition for food in the nest may become so aggressive that the adults will quickly land and depart the nest, leaving the prey intact for the eaglets to feed on their own. The Canon EOS-1D X MK II’s superior autofocus and capture speed of 14 fps coupled with the framing ability of the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L MK II zoom lens makes this the perfect combination for photographing the aerial action. An EF 1.4X MK III tele-extender improved the focal length to a maximum 560mm. 1/2000 sec @ f/13, ISO 1600.

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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.

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