I have had the luxury of photographing bald eagles all over the United States while doing research on my book, The Photographer’s Guide to Bald Eagles.  One of the most common questions I field from fellow photographers relates to which location is the best to photograph our nation’s symbol in their natural setting.  While there is no simple answer, the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve near Haines, Alaska has to be a focal point of the conversation.

The first thing that comes to mind when choosing a location to photograph wildlife always seems to be population.  In other words, if I travel to location X on a certain date, how many birds am I likely to see?  Although the Chilkat is often recognized as enjoying the largest congregation of bald eagles in the world, the data might be a bit out of date.  Since the mitigation of DDT in the lower 48 states, the bald eagle population has been on the rise, making the migration to states like Iowa each winter potentially rival the Chilkat’s status as the largest congregation of the species.  With over 800 bald eagles spotted in one location in Iowa at one time, it’s hard to imagine a better location.  That said, if you simply chase the largest population, you could be aiming at the wrong target.  You might have 50 sitting in front of you, but if their behavior doesn’t lend itself to successful photography, your time is wasted.  After all, it only takes one bald eagle to create a powerful image and the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve is an incredible location to capture some activity.


Bald eagle defends her territory
The Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve can be a dangerous place. Creating the illusion of size of often the only thing that separates a quiet meal from one that is fiercely contested.

#1 – They Try to Look Big

My fellow dog lovers likely see this on a daily basis.  Something or someone approaches your home and our furry companions lose their minds (especially the little ones).  The fur on their backs stands up as they try to make themselves appear to be larger to anything that might dare to challenge their territory.

When threatened, bald eagles can adopt a very similar posture, and I’ve never witnessed it more than at the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve.  With so many eagles fishing the same, relatively small body of water, they will undoubtedly cross paths at close range.  Creating the illusion that they are larger in size might be the difference between a potential rival stealing their meal or turning away to find one of their own.

#2 – Fighting.  Talons Up.  Inverted.

If looking big doesn’t work out as planned, there is a chance that you will witness a bit of a tussle.  And nothing screams quintessential Chilkat like a good fight scene.  Brutal?  It can be.  It’s not uncommon to see bald eagles with broken beaks or injured eyes at the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve because they have an innate need to fight for survival.  But that will happen whether you are there with your camera or sitting at home eating bon-bons.  (One of these days I’m going to have to figure out what a bonbon actually is)

Bald eagles can only eat around a third of their body weight (fish, not bonbons) and can lift even less.  When a 10-pound salmon is being devoured by our feathered friends, it will have to change hands at least a few times.  If the bald eagle is close to the point of satiety, they might simply move out of the way for another to join the meal.  However, as food becomes scarce, reaching the point of satiety becomes less and less common, and the level of ferocity increases.  Each year, I try to schedule my workshops around this very phenomenon.  

A bald eagle’s beak is a tremendously useful tool.  Consisting primarily of keratin, the sharp hook allows them to tear into prey with minimal effort.  But as handy as this tool can be, the eagle’s talons are its best defense.  It’s not uncommon to witness an impressive aerial display as they attempt to defend themselves.

Chilkat bald eagle shriek
When you have a willing subject, it often pays to wait for something to happen. This bald eagle allowed dozens of her counterparts to pass without incident, until a rival attempted to fly through the area.

#3 – Vocalizing to Warn a Rival

Reality TV isn’t the only place to witness a cheap scuffle.  But bald eagles understand that the next fight could be their last, and will avoid it if possible.  

After watching bald eagles do bald eagle things in the wild for many years, I’ve noticed a behavior that is more common in the Chilkat than almost any other location.  Much like the train wrecks we see on network television, they appear to hold grudges.  And when a bald eagle falls outside of the circle of trust, the tension is obvious.

I witnessed a great example of this while scouting for my Chilkat tour a few years ago.  I had a few days to shoot before clients arrived and fell upon a bald eagle that appeared to be far more photogenic than the average.  Sensing this rare opportunity, I waited patiently, while watching eagle after eagle fly by without incident.  After close to an hour, another bird caught my subject’s attention, causing it to let out a ferocious warning cry.  Why the sudden change in behavior?  I’ll never know for sure, but there appeared to be some sort of history between them.

#4 – Spiking the Football

One of the best things about growing up an Iowa Hawkeye fan (insert corn joke here ______) is the lessons in modesty.  Make a big play?  Hand the ball to the ref.  Gain a first down?  Hand the ball to the ref.  Score a touchdown?  Skip the celebration, act like you’ve been there before and hand the ball to the ref.  Iowans love to practice humility and it shows on the field.

Bald eagles completely missed the memo on this one, and the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve is perhaps the best place on the planet to witness it.  

Yes, I hold human beings to a higher standard than bald eagles.  In some cases, their brains are smaller.  But one of the more humorous things you will witness about bald eagle behavior happens when a fish is stolen from another.  In what can best be described as “spiking the football”, the winning bird will berate the loser in a spectacle that appears to be free from any sort of modesty.  As it gains control of the meal, the closest thing to bald eagle laughter will be on display.

Chilkat bald eagle preserve photo workshop
Something as simple as having a meal can be hazardous to your health near Haines, Alaska. An awaiting rival can be at your doorstep in just seconds.

#5 – The Meals are a Drag

What makes all of the aforementioned behaviors so common to this location is due to the nature of the food source.  The large congregation of eagles at the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve is caused by a late salmon run that culminates in a huge feast each November.  Unlike most habitats, where the eagle simply swoops down and flies off with its prey, the salmon’s large size makes flight virtually impossible, causing them to drag their meal to a dry spot.  This environment leaves the bird exposed to its rivals, allowing one perched in a nearby tree to have the force of gravity on their side.

An empty stomach and an instinct for survival is all that is needed to unlock the unique behaviors on display at the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve.

You’ll have to excuse me but I’m about to leave my office to grab some bonbons.  After a bit of research (thanks, Google), I have come to learn that someone has found a way to fit liqueur inside of chocolate.

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