CLASHING TALONS

CLASHING TALONS

5 THINGS I LOVE ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE CHILKAT BALD EAGLE PRESERVE

While there will always be much debate over the best place to photograph bald eagles, the Chilkat Bald Eagle Perserve near Haines, Alaska will always be involved in the conversation.  Surrounded by some of the most photogenic landscapes that Alaska has to offer, it’s no wonder Haines was featured at the end of the recent Breaking Bad sequel “El Camino” (spoiler alert: Jesse ends up in Haines at the end).  But the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve has much more to offer for photographers than towering mountains. Here are five things I love about the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve and the area surrounding Haines, Alaska.

#1 – BALD EAGLES FIGHTING

Let’s get this one out of the way.  There are some outstanding places to photograph bald eagles, from the migration in Iowa to Jean Keene’s eagles who still reside near Homer.  But no location offers the opportunity to photograph the fight for survival like the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve.

As a late salmon run comes to an end each November, what has been widely reported to be the largest congregation of bald eagles anywhere in the world offers an almost unlimited supply of sustenance.  But with up to 4,000 bald eagles reported within the 49,000 acre preserve during peak season, even the most plentiful food sources have their limits.  As the amount of salmon decreases, the bald eagle’s aggressiveness increases, leading to what is often a brutal display of survival. 

Bald eagle landing with talons extended.
Talons Out! The bald eagles in the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve are known for their aggressive behavior, making it an incredible location for photography.

#2 – BUS FREE ZONE

Haines isn’t without its challenges.  Located in the panhandle of Alaska, simply getting there can be a pain if you haven’t made the trip before and the recent funding challenges experienced by the Alaska Ferry System have made it even more of a challenge.  But the benefits of shooting at the location far outweigh the hurdles you need to overcome to reach it. 

Oddly enough, the hurdles themselves that actually help to make the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve such a special place.  When a shooting location becomes this well known, it can become a hot spot for tourists, traveling in mass while driving up prices and exhausting the resources that made the location worth visiting in the first place.  This isn’t the case with Haines.  Simply put, the vast majority of tourists won’t invest the time and effort it takes to get there.  You won’t see any tour buses.  There will be no selfie line.  Just a bunch of bald eagles and a few eager photographers. 

#3 – FEARLESS NATURE

As a Midwesterner, my introduction into bald eagle photography happened over 25 years ago along the Mississippi River.  Opportunities can be severely limited unless you find a way to hide as the birds tend to be extremely fearful of human activity. 

This is not the case in the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve.  Often flying so close you can hear the sound of their wings flap, the eagles who frequent the area are known to be a bit fearless, often landing within 30 feet of photographers.  While the preserve is known for its fight scenes, the opportunities to get frame-filling portraits are rivaled by only a few locations in the world.

#4 – THE BACKGROUNDS

Bald eagle landing at the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve.
While they usually come to see bald eagles fighting, the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve offers unique backgrounds that add life to almost any photographer’s portfolio.

After spending the majority of my time photographing bald eagles along the Mississippi River for several years, my portfolio had become a bit stale.  I’m a sucker for a nice, blue sky behind a well-lit eagle in flight and had photographed this scene thousands of times, but how many can you stuff into one portfolio.

This changed within the first hour of visiting the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve.  While blue sky is hard to come by during peak eagle season, the atmospheric haze found in the Chilkat River Valley has the potential to increase the diversity of almost any portfolio by providing some unique backgrounds.  On a clear day, snow-capped mountains can create strong compositions as a cooperative bald eagle adds depth in the foreground.

#5 – VOCALIZATION

Juvenile bald eagle vocalizing
The Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve offers more than just fight scenes. Aggressive behavior is often on display in the form of forceful vocalization.

As you might have guessed, bald eagles aren’t pushovers.  Food means survival and when anything gets in the way, the result can be brutal.  To prevent this from happening, they attempt to intimidate potential enemies by forcefully vocalizing in the direction of their foe.

Another behavior that is frequently on display occurs when one eagle wins the prize over another.  When a fish changes hands after an altercation, the winner often vocalizes in a manner that can only be described as letting their opponent know the pecking order.  To use a football metaphor, they like to spike the ball when they win.

-AJ Harrison

AJ Harrison is a US based photographer specializing in bald eagle, brown bear and landscape photography.  His work has been recognized by publications such as National Geographic, Forbes and the National Wildlife Federation.

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