Trip Report – Bald Eagle Photo Workshop – November 2014

In Trip Report by Matt Shetzer

Bald Eagle Photography Workshop attendees

Lin, Ejaz, Bill, Steve, Don, Barry, Paula and Matt

We just got back from our annual Bald Eagle Photography Workshop in Haines, Alaska! How time flies… Haines is starting to feel like a second home. As always, the photography workshop was a fun, productive time, and all of our clients went home with many unique pictures of bald eagles that they will hopefully treasure for a long time.

The Bald Eagle Photography Workshop is seven days long, and we packed as much as we could into every moment.

Monday

This was a beautiful day with the blue sky peaking out and mountains everywhere. Our clients arrived in Haines, Alaska on the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry beneath sunny blue skies. What a great way to start the workshop.

The Alaska Marine Highway Ferry system is a unique method of transportation. The marine highway system carries passengers and their vehicles up and down the coast of Alaska. Taking the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry System is much more convenient, prettier, and more environmentally sound than hundreds of people all driving themselves on Alaska’s rather sparse network of roads.

This year, local Haines resident and photographer extraordinaire Bill McRoberts joined Matt Shetzer for the Bald Eagle Photography Workshop. We were very glad for Bill’s help, as he was able to provide us with local knowledge and color, as well as lend his trained photographer’s eye to our clients.

Both Bill and I were waiting to greet clients at the ferry station in Haines. Once our group was complete, we took a brief tour of the small town (Haines has a population of 2,500) and checked into our hotel for the week. We offered the clients a few free hours to explore town, pick up any last minute supplies they had forgotten to bring to Alaska, and to take pictures of the beautiful harbor and the Lynn Canal near the historic Fort Seward.

Fort Seward, also known as the “Chilkoot Barracks,” is an old military installation. U.S. troops and police members were stationed in the barracks during the gold rush in order to moderate conflicts between miners. Today, Fort Seward is an artist’s colony, with galleries and artist-in-residence programs.

Bald Eagle Photo Trip

Guests arriving on the Ferry from Juneau

That evening we all met up for a group dinner at one of our favorite restaurants. We always like to start our photography workshops with a group activity because it allows everyone to become more comfortable with each other. Over the remnants of our dinner, we shared many stories, discussed the plan for the days to come, and reviewed some eagle behaviors so we would be better prepared to capture great images form the get-go in the field tomorrow. Photography starts early every morning and our goal for the week is to provide as much field time as possible and put the clients on the right spot at the right time/light.

Tuesday

We left our hotel 30 minutes before sunrise and headed up to the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. We shot pictures of bald eagles all morning, from sunrise until early afternoon.

The Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve provides a rare opportunity to see thousands of Bald Eagles without having to venture deep into the backcountry or disturb the animals in their natural habitat. The Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve is comprised of 48,000 acres of protected land on the Chilkat, Kleheni, and Tsirku Rivers. According to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Bald Eagles use virtually every acre of the preserve. There are roads circling the preserve with pullouts which allow for sightseeing and photography.

It was raining in the town on Tuesday, but the weather at the preserve was dry. The eagles were out, and putting on a show for us. During the day we saw the following behaviors:

• Eagles fighting with each other.
• Instances of eagles swooping down from up high to attack for a fish with their talons
• Eagles roosting in trees
• Eagles bathing in the river
• Eagles preening their feathers/ eagles drying off
• Ventilating
• We even saw the spectacular dance of two bald eagles chasing each other across the sky while in flight

Bald Eagle photography tour

Steve and Don photographing a Bald Eagle perched on a Sitka Spruce

After spending many hours photographing the eagles, we headed to one of our favorite spots for photographing Trumpeter Swans. We were fortunate to see a family of five. This gorgeous group was comprised of the two parent swans and three baby swans, or “cygnets.” After watching them on the surface of the water for about 10 minutes with beautiful reflections, the group took flight— right towards us! All the commotion of the “honking” and feet slapping on the water during takeoff certainly grabbed our attention.

At the end of the day, we took a break to download images and relax before dinner. After our day in the field, we offered a classroom/ workshop setting for our clients. In this space, we discussed techniques to achieve perfect exposure of the eagles and auto-focus settings to capture tack sharp images.

Wednesday

At first light we headed out to the Chilkat Preserve to photograph the bald eagles again. While we were driving, the town of Haines experienced a small earthquake, which registered a 4.6 on the Richter Scale. Luckily for us, this relatively minor quake did not cause any serious issues. We were driving in the car, so we were not even aware that a quake had occurred until we returned to the hotel. After a couple of hours photographing eagles in flight, we then headed to a very photogenic lake outside of town. The clouds lifted, and the bright Alaskan sun beat down on us as we took endless pictures of breathtaking mountain vistas, more trumpeter swans, and crystal-clear reflections in the lake.

As we where photographing the area, one of the local families invited us up on their deck to get a better angle on the scenery. We accepted, and climbed up on their deck, which was located right on the shore of the lake. As we spoke with this Native American family, they told us the story of their recent trip from Haines to Juneau. The group had travelled in a dug out canoe the community built; they had taken the trip as a sort of celebration. It was an amazing story displaying the deep native culture which is so accessible here in Alaska.

The children in this family then dressed up in their full regalia and allowed us to photograph them in their cultural garb, a unique opportunity. The kids were excited and enthusiastic to show us their hand made paddles, and their ornaments made with bald eagle feathers, dall sheep horns, and a full wolf hide. We profusely thanked our hosts for their welcoming hospitality, and headed back to the eagle preserve for more eagle photography. We shot pictures of bald eagles until we lost the light.

Once the light faded we headed back into town and grabbed a slice of pizza and some local craft beers. After dinner we went to the classroom to discuss the different photography techniques necessary to capture different eagle shots. Some of the concepts we discussed included how to capture portraits of eagles, eagles in front of huge landscapes, eagles in flight, and attacking eagles.

Thursday

Just like Monday, it was raining in Haines when we awoke, but the weather at the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve was dry. Fate seemed to be with us on this trip, as we spent the morning capturing eagle images at some of our favorite locations around the preserve. We saw quite a few juvenile eagles today, which was great as they had been hiding on earlier photography days. Juvenile Bald Eagles are easily visually identified by their brown feathers and are often incorrectly identified as golden eagles.

While shooting in the preserve, many clients got spectacular images of an adult eagle flying right towards us at eye level. Several skilled clients captured the bird as it turned, capturing the bird displaying the beautiful detail in its feathers. The eagle was looking right at us at it flew, and it was so, so close. It was a wonderful encounter, and just fantastic for our clients to take home an image of that intensity.

When we saw the action slow down, we headed inland towards the Roadhouse for a great lunch in an authentic Alaskan log cabin. The Roadhouse represents Alaska hospitality at its finest. With bellies full, we headed back to the eagle grounds, and tucked into a spot we liked which was known to have great lighting in the afternoon. We were rewarded with many photos of eagles fighting over fish, which created some exceptional action sequences. Once the eagles had eaten all of the fish, we used our last hour of light to capture more in-flights and a little more action. Once the light was gone, we headed back to town for a little warm-up by the fire, where we downloaded our images and prepared our camera gear ready for another day.

We spent the rest of the evening discussing different photographic techniques. When we could talk about technique no more, we had a fun little client show and tell. Workshop participants showed off their favorite pictures they had taken so far on the trip. Some great images had been captured already, and several clients showed marked improvement in their shot selection, framing, and overall technique. Everyone was very pleased. After all, improving our images is our ultimate goal with the Bald Eagle Photography Workshop.

Friday

Again, we took early-morning photos on the Chilkat Preserve. We moved around the preserve a lot today, seeking out new angles, opportunities, and backdrops for our eagle photographs. We were able to capture many images of eagles fighting and feeding today from different locations. We are always on the lookout for different locations to keep the photos unique, with many different backgrounds and settings. As photographer, we never want our output to look monotonous.

Eagle Photography Workshop

Presentation of Zilla at the American Bald Eagle Foundation

Later in the day we headed over to a lake to photograph more of the trumpeter swans and enjoy the beauty of this spot. In the afternoon, we paid a visit to the American Bald Eagle Foundation. This local foundation has a lobby with dioramas showcasing local Alaskan species. The American Bald Eagle Foundation provided us with a fresh perspective on the animals we had been photographing for the last week. The Foundation even let us get to meet two of their captive raptors, birds named Zilla and Warrior.

Warrior is a red-tailed hawk, while Zilla is a Lanner-Saker falcon. While neither of the raptors were bald eagles, seeing Warrior and Zilla up close taught us all a new respect for these fierce, independent creatures. Although due to injuries Warrior and Zilla will not be released back into the wild, the American Bald Eagle Foundation takes good care of the birds and use them to educate visitors on why exactly it is important that we protect large bird species, including Bald Eagles.

After visiting up close and personal with these amazing birds, we headed over to Dawson City to photograph the old set where large parts of the movie “White Fang” were filmed. We grabbed a quick burger at The Legion, and then returned to the classroom. We spent our workshop session learning more about Photoshop and image post-processing. This is a valuable skill for photographers to have and it’s always great to share different techniques from all the experience in the room. Client selected their images to be worked up as samples to highlight the typical post processing workflow.

Saturday

After breakfast we headed out the to preserve for more bald eagle action. We headed to some new spots where we have had success during past Bald Eagle Photography Workshops. We were able to get very close to some eagles in these classic spots. We shot for hours as the bald eagles flew by, fought each other for salmon and interacted with each other. Once the activity at these spots calmed down, we headed out to one of my favorite spots, the beautiful Chilkoot River and Lake.

Chilkoot State Park is a destination that we never miss on our Bald Eagle Photography workshop. The location is just too pretty and too full of wildlife to skip if you are in the area.

The water flowing into the lake and down the river is glacial run-off, therefore has that beautiful green color that adds so much to our photos, not to mention the moss and lichen on the rocks that the eagles will perch on. This area is a photographer’s paradise. We shot until the light died, wanting to hold on to our last full day as long as possible.

Once the sun set, we headed back to the hotel for a little rest, and then the whole group went out for our final dinner where we shared our experiences and photos. After dinner, Bill McRoberts presented Digital Art samples and supplied the guests with different ideas for artistic pieces that could be created using the images clients had captured on the trip.

Sunday

As the morning cleared, the mountains peeked out at us and showed their full beauty. We headed out early, well before sunrise to capitalize on the light. As we arrived at the Bald Eagle preserve we saw an eagle with a fish and the fun begins. This was a great attack scene location and we were fortunate to watch the action up close. We watched for 2 hours as different eagles would attack for the fish, while the eagle in possession would defend its prey. This was a great opportunity to observe various bald eagle behaviors.

Once every ounce of the fish had been consumed, we worked on some more eagle in-flight photographs. After the in-flight photos, we headed back to the Chilkoot River and Lake, where we photographed more eagles and the beautiful surroundings. The still surface of the lake created perfect reflections under the towering mountains. We pulled out our landscape lenses and clicked away. Once everyone got their shots, we noticed that eagles were perched atop the nearby sitka spruce trees. This arrangement allowed us to capture some moving images of our American symbol perched in front of the dark green trees.

As the day winded down, we saw a grizzly bear walking down the road. Grizzly bears often frequent this area so we are always on the lookout of them. Many of our clients were able to capture quick pictures of this burly creature wandering past. What a bonus, and we weren’t even on the Grizzly Bear Photography Workshop! As the high tide pushed up in the river, we watched a harbor seal explore the area for its next meal, and a merganser relax on a lichen-covered rock.

As the day came to a close, light faded, and we headed to the ferry terminal where the trip began. We all said our goodbyes, and all headed towards our next adventures.

Trip Report – Bald Eagle Photo Workshop – November 2014 was last modified: November 29th, 2015 by Matt Shetzer