The lure of our country’s national bird is strong with many photographers. Whether it’s the bald eagle’s massive wingspan, intense gaze or their regal stature, beginners and professionals alike are pulled to several locations throughout North America to capture powerful images of them. After photographing the species for more than 20 years, I’m often asked the same question: What is the best location for bald eagle photography?
After repeatedly photographing a location, you begin to gain a sense of intimacy with an area as if you share something with it. Everything within the area seems to have a sense of familiarity to it, as if the mountains, trees and rivers have become a small part of you. While there are countless locations to see bald eagles in North America, I will stick to three that I have visited most frequently for the sake of this article. Having spent countless days at each spot photographing and scouting for upcoming workshops, I have been fortunate to gain that sense of familiarity with each location.
WHICH LOCATION IS THE BEST?
So which spot is the best for capturing jaw-dropping photos of bald eagles? That depends on what type of images you are trying to add to your portfolio. If a photographer is looking to capture images of bald eagles fighting, one location stands above the rest. On the other hand, if the photographer simply wants to get close enough to take head shots, a different location rises to the top.
I have created a simple rating system based several popular images that photographers seek when photographing bald eagles. Each category has been scored on a scale from 1 to 10 in an attempt to help each reader decide the best location to fit their needs. (1 is the worst. 10 is the best)
Homer is a small town located just over 200 miles from Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city. Known as the Halibut Fishing Capital of the World, the town sits within the Kenai Peninsula and is on the shore of the Kachemak Bay.
We chose to host a workshop in Homer because it is truly a special place when it comes to photographing bald eagles. What made the area famous to photographers was a woman named Jean Keene, who hand fed bald eagles in the Homer area for many years until her death in 2009. Known around the world as “the eagle lady”, it is believed that Keene caused several hundred bald eagles become more acclimated to humans. While this practice was eventually banned in Homer upon her death, her efforts have helped photographers get very close to the birds ever since. Many of the bald eagle photographs that have been published in major publications over the past 30 years have come from Homer, featuring one of Jean Keene’s birds.
But that is only the beginning when it comes to Homer. The area is surrounded by mountains, providing pleasing backgrounds for photographs of birds in flight. The calm water of the Kachemak Bay lends itself to unique images of bald eagles, often providing reflections as the subject flies close to the water.
THE TALE OF TWO PEAKS
Peak eagle season in Homer can be fluid. However, unlike other hot spots that peak once each year, Homer actually peaks twice. In the summer months, bald eagles can be found feeding near the shoreline, making June and July great months to visit the area. But during February and March, hundreds of bald eagles migrate to the area in search of food. Whether you’re making it part of a summer vacation to Alaska or visiting during the winter with wildlife photography in mind, Homer is one of the best places on earth to photograph bald eagles.
Homer ranks 8 out of 10 when it comes to flight shots for two reasons. First, you can get close. Really close. Second, on a clear day the mountainous backgrounds can be absolutely fantastic! The only challenge when it comes to flight shots is distance. The Kachemak Bay is large, allowing bald eagles to often fly at a distance.
I gave the location two opposing ratings when it comes to fishing shots because it depends on the season. During the summer, they tend to focus more on food sources like carrion that are easy to acquire. However, during the winter months, the bald eagles who reside near home are known to fish the waters of Kachemak Bay on a frequent basis.
Capturing bald eagle portraits are a similar story. During the summer, a photographer can often get within 50 feet while they are feeding on carrion. But during the winter, they generally roost in the trees. That said, some of Jean Keene’s eagles still reside in the area and have been known to be a photogenic subject, even during the winter.
Bald eagles fight the most when their survival instinct kicks in. While the Kenai Peninsula makes for an amazing backdrop, it also provides a significant amount of food, reducing the bald eagle’s need to be aggressive. If fighting shots are your thing, Homer might not be the best option.
Because of the mountainous landscape and the ability to get close, Homer is a great location to capture photos of bald eagles as part of the landscape. The only reason the area wasn’t given the maximum rating of 10 is due to the lack of trees on the Homer Spit, the area they frequent the most during the winter season.
IOWA BALD EAGLE MIGRATION
Most will refer to Iowa as a flyover state as they imagine cornfield after cornfield running through their minds. They would be correct, if it wasn’t for the eastern 25% of Iowa that offers rolling hills, steep cliffs, and hundreds of miles bordering the Mississippi River, hosting one of the largest bald eagle migrations in North America.
We chose to host a photography workshop in Iowa due to the sheer number of eagles that migrate to the area each winter. From the months of December through March, the Mississippi becomes a lucrative feeding ground for thousands upon thousands of bald eagles as they migrate from Northern Minnesota and Canada. Not migratory in the traditional sense, eagles simply travel to where they can find food, making the open water south of Iowa’s lock and dam systems the perfect spot to capture outstanding photographs.
More than 1,000 bald eagles have been spotted at one time on the Mississippi according to data from the Army Corps of Engineers. While they frequent the area throughout the entire winter, peak season is usually from mid-January through late February.
Iowa gets a perfect score when it comes to flight shots for several reasons. The colder it gets, the more likely you see a crisp, blue sky behind your subject. This also means that the eagle will be lit with strong sunlight, allowing for action stopping shutter speeds of 1/3200 or better. In addition, the strong directional nature of the sunlight can add detail to the feathers that make up the eagle’s head, while adding catch lights in the bird’s eye.
The other rating that Iowa absolutely nails is the opportunity to capture fishing shots. Well-known areas like LeClaire are famous for providing photographers with action-filled days of bald eagles snatching shad from the Mississippi River. As fish make their way through the lock and dam system, they are often stunned from the swift current. Bald eagles take advantage of this by lying in wait, sometimes feeding a dozen or more times before the sun meets the horizon.
Get lucky with a blue sky and the water gains a pleasing navy hue. You’ll also benefit from the aforementioned sunlight on certain days, allowing faster shutter speeds for freezing droplets of water in the air as the eagle pulls a fish from the water.
The biggest downfall of bald eagle photography in Iowa is the fact that the birds are skittish. Getting close enough to capture a head shot is almost unheard of. That said, the fishing and flight opportunities more than make up for this shortcoming.
As mentioned previously, a bald eagle’s level of aggressiveness will increase as their food sources decrease. No one will confuse Iowa for the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve (more on that in a second) when it comes to aggressive eagles. But when snow covers the fields of Iowa and winter temperatures place a layer of ice on nearby lakes and rivers, bald eagles have no choice but to fish close to dams, the rushing water providing access to their only food source. With hundreds of bald eagles competing for the same fish, their level of aggressiveness is heightened.
Let’s face it, there are no mountains to use as a backdrop in Iowa so this location gets a bit of downgrade. But the increased chance of a blue sky during the peak season (mid-January through February) can give a crisp, clean look to your images. In addition, Iowa storms can provide enough humidity for the snow to stick to the trees, providing a winter wonderland to use as a powerful background for your images.
CHILKAT BALD EAGLE PRESERVE – HAINES, ALASKA
The quaint little town of Haines only sports a population of about 2,000 people. But what it lacks in humans it makes up for in opportunity. In the late 1800s, the town gained in notoriety during the Klondike Gold Rush, acting as a critical supply center for the Dalton Trail. One look at this town and you can immediately recognize its connection to the gold rush era.
Prior to World War II, Haines served as the only United States Army post in Alaska. During the war, it was a vital supply point for the war.
Haines is the landing spot for the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, the site of what has been reported to be the largest congregation of bald eagles in the world. As the waterways of Alaska freeze over during the month of November, thousands of bald eagles make their way to the open water of the Chilkat in search of food. November also marks the end of a salmon run in the Chilkat River and its neighboring tributaries, offering a seemingly endless supply of spawned out salmon for the eagles to feed. But as cold temperatures set in, food becomes more scarce, elevating the survival instinct of each bird.
The Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve gets a perfect score when it comes to flight shots due to the fact that they seem to have no fear while in flight. During several of our workshops, they have flown so close to our clients that they could observe the sound of the eagle’s wings flap.
With the abundance of salmon in the area, fishing shots rarely happen in the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. At close to 10 pounds each, the salmon are simply too heavy for the eagles to lift. Instead, they will drag the fish to a dry spot and eat as much as they can before being attacked by an approaching foe.
While the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve won’t rival Homer when it comes to bald eagle portraits, it’s still toward the top of the list. It’s not uncommon to see a bald eagle land within 15 feet of a photographer. Several perches are located within 30 feet of the riverbank, allowing the perfect opportunity to capture a frame-filling shot.
Simply put, the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve is the best location in the world to capture their aggressive nature. As the month of November winds down, salmon become more and more scarce, forcing eagles to steal what that cannot find. During the 15-20 minutes it takes for an eagle to eat a 10-pound salmon, the fish changes hands approximately four to five times as eagle after eagle attempt to steal their next meal. This transition only increases as the amount of fish decreases. Each time this transition takes place, there is a chance that you will witness the aggressive behavior that the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve has become known for.
Similar to Homer, Haines is surrounded by snow-capped mountains, providing the perfect backdrop for your images. Weather can severely limit these opportunities. However, the abundance of trees give Haines an advantage over Homer and the Chilkat River valley provides enough atmospheric haze to add depth to your images.
WHAT IS THE BEST LOCATION FOR BALD EAGLE PHOTOGRAPHY?
So, let’s revisit our original question. Which location is the best for bald eagle photography? Two words.
If you are looking to add a nice collection of fishing and flight shots to your portfolio, Iowa has a huge advantage. While you might catch a fight or two in LeClaire, the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve is the best spot in the world to record their aggressive behavior. For close up or portrait shots of bald eagles, Homer is by far the best. Both the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve and Homer are great spots to incorporate bald eagles as part of the landscape, with the Chilkat gaining an edge due to the number of roosting areas available. My advice? Take a look at the list of potential shots and decide which is the most important to you. A flight to Alaska is less than three hours from Seattle and a little more than four hours from Minneapolis. Both airports offer direct flights and countless opportunities to connect from airports around the Lower 48.