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Bald Eagle Photography at Lock & Dam 14

5 Things to Know Before Your Trip to Iowa

There is a lot to love about the area surrounding Lock & Dam 14.  LeClaire, Iowa, the nearest town, is the home of Antique Archeology, the set of the History Channel’s famous show American Pickers.  The neighboring Quad Cities (Moline and Rock Island in Illinois, Bettendorf and Davenport in Iowa) boasts a combined population of close to 400,000 residents which is on the larger side of metro areas found in the Midwest.  But the biggest reason for photographers to visit is the bald eagle population that migrates to the area each year.  Whether they are looking to photograph bald eagles fishing or in flight, Lock and Dam 14 has been one of the best places in the United States to capture them.  Here are 5 things to know before your bald eagle photography trip to Iowa.

#1 – Timing

You can master everything there is to know about your camera and bald eagle behavior, but if the light isn’t right, your results will suffer mightily.  While the bald eagle action at Lock & Dam 14 can be absolutely amazing, lighting is often a challenge.  Early risers aren’t rewarded at this location as most of the activity happens to the east.  Early morning sun leads to strong backlighting.  If silhouettes are your thing, you just found your mecca.  If, however, you prefer the light to be at your back when you shoot, the best light is after 1pm.

Note:  While the light is best in the afternoon, don’t wait until 1pm to show up.  As a well-known hot spot for bald eagle photographers, most of the best spots are occupied by late morning.  Be sure to claim your spot long before the crowd arrives. 

Wind direction has a huge influence on the direction of the bald eagles flight path. Nikon D500. 1/2,000th, f7.1, iso 500.

#2 – Wind

The promise of capturing photographs of bald eagles snatching fish from the water is what draws most photographers to Lock & Dam 14.  But if the wind is blowing the wrong direction, you’ll end up with a bunch of tail shots. 

Meteorologists in the United States list wind direction as the direction of origin.  Based on this shooting location, wind originating in the west is ideal.  While wind direction can be tough to predict with certainty, it’s simply too critical to your success to ignore it altogether.

Clear skies are handy for more than just flight shots. The blue color reflects on the water, avoiding the murky, grey look that is common on cloudy days. Nikon D850. 1/3,200th, f/7.1, iso 500.

#3 – Check the Sky

Unlike some of my other favorite locations like the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve or Homer, Alaska, the sky around LeClaire is wide open.  There are no mountains to use as background for flight shots.  Trees don’t come into the equation unless your subject is flying very low.  Blue sky is your best option, making your timing critical to your success.

The obvious solution is to keep your eye on the weather as your trip approaches.  The colder it gets, the more likely Mother Nature will provide a crisp, blue sky to use for your background.

#4 – Dress Warm

Seems like a no-brainer, right?  I have seen this too many times to count.  A photographer packs their camera bag with enough memory cards to last them several weeks.  Lenses are cleaned and ready to go.  Batteries are charged.  Backup batteries are charged.  The processes can be lengthy but most of us get tunnel vision on our equipment.

Every minute of the 4+ hours of good light that shines on Lock and Dam 14 each day can be extremely valuable.  While the wind can be your best friend, it can also send you running to your car to thaw out frozen fingers, ears, and/or feet.  Dressing in layers is the best move as you will be in the open, exposed to the elements.  Don’t miss out on a great shot because of a lack of preparation.

As great as Lock and Dam 14 can be on sunny days, I move my workshops to alternate locations when clouds are prevalent. While not ideal, eliminating the sky altogether can be an effective plan B.

#5 – Have a Backup Plan

If you haven’t noticed, several pieces of the puzzle need to be in place for optimal conditions at Lock and Dam 14.  Even if the wind is originating from the west and the Gods of Iowa Weather have blessed you with a blue sky, there is no guarantee that the bald eagle population won’t be elsewhere. 

Thankfully, Lock & Dam 14 sits in the middle of three other locations that have proven to be significant hot spots for bald eagle photography.  The Mississippi River around the Dubuque area has produced some of the best images in my portfolio.  The Iowa River meanders through Iowa City, providing several great opportunities.  Lastly, the Burlington area has frequently reported some of the highest bald eagle populations in the lower 48, even hitting 800+ at one time.

Hot spots change so knowing where to find them is critical to developing a good backup plan.  As a native Iowan, I invest a significant amount of time scouting for my bald eagle workshops and tours each year.  Finding the right spot based on all of the conditions above can be a challenge.  If you want to maximize the effectiveness of your backup plan, be sure to speak to a local or sign up for one of my workshops (details below).

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