One Step Back
The beneficiary of an old safeguard faces a new concern.
April 7, 2022 :: Birds
Bald eagle populations have made a strong recovery since the first Earth Day in 1970. Thanks to the combined efforts of citizens, scientists and government officials, eagles soared back from the brink of extinction when pesticides like DDT were banned.
Now they face a new threat: lead poisoning. A recent study of dead eagles in Indiana found they had ingested toxic levels of lead. The source is believed to be lead ammunitions used by hunters. Bullet fragments and shotgun pellets are passed along in the ducks and other animals that eagles hunt or scavenge.
The official number of poisoned eagles ranges from a few per year to more than a dozen. That's if they can be found -- dead or alive. The real number of dead or dying birds may never be known. Those that are found alive can be treated and saved, though some may never recover enough to be released back into the wild.
Bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) had vanished from Indiana when the last breeding pair was recorded in the 1890s. In the 1980s, 73 eagles were reintroduced to the state in hopes of reestablishing a new nesting population.
In a 2020 count, 350 nesting pairs were recorded throughout the state. The reintroduction program has been so successful that officials took the eagle off of the state's endangered species list in 2008.
But after the new study, it feels like we took two steps forward and one step back.
My Earth Day wish is that we've learned enough from our past that we will work to guarantee the Bald eagle's future.
Note: This adult bald eagle was photographed during a fund-raising photo workshop at the Howell Nature Center near Howell, Michigan. Their wildlife rehabilitation facility uses this annual event to raise money for its important work. The bird is healthy now, but can never be returned to the wild.
MAKING THE PHOTOGRAPH
Much of this description is adapted from my Oct. 19, 2021 Journal entry about photographing captive birds.
SUBJECT: Bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), male, captive.
LOCATION: Howell Nature Center, Howell, Michigan
CONDITIONS: Calm, mostly cloudy; mid-50s F
EQUIPMENT and SETTINGS: Nikon D850, Nikon 500mm f/4, Gitzo tripod, Wimberley Gimbal Head WH-200 Version II; Matrix metering, Aperture-priority exposure, Back-button Auto-focus, Continuous shutter mode.
EXPOSURE: 1/1,000 sec. @ f/11, ISO 1600
My set up for photographing the bald eagle was more specialized than my daily set up. I mounted the Wimberley Gimbal head to the tripod in place of my everyday ball head. I attached the 500mm lens to the Wimberley and then added the Nikon D850 body to the lens.
I balanced the body and lens, so that they would not swing or tilt when I let go of them. This is the important step that makes using a gimbal practical. It becomes clear when you see it done right. Go to these videos to find out more about this specialized head and its set up at: Wimberley videos and info and Steve Perry at Backcountry Gallery
I was ready to approach the captive birds at the nature center as if they were wild. I brought the same gear I would choose for wild ones. I brought the same mentality, too.
In the wild, I know the senses of birds and mammals far exceed mine. The chances of me creeping up on them unnoticed are slim. So I chose to go slow, stay quiet and tired not to act like a stalking predator.
Since the bald eagle and all the other birds were accompanied by handlers, perched out in the open and watching about 40 photographers wandering around them, I knew I wouldn't startle the eagle, if I was respectful.
I chose an eye-level position where the bird was mostly front lit which showed off its plumage. Since its log perch was low to the ground, so was I. I sat down, splayed the tripod legs, slipped under them and adjusted the camera to a comfortable height.
From here, the background was a reasonable distance away, so I could keep it soft and out-of-focus. The bird was broadside to me, so I could photograph it in profile. That made it easier to get sharpness from beak to tail.
The eagle was most interested in the small group of photographers in front of it. Its handler was among them and the eagle would occasionally throw its head back and make its high-pitched staccato whistling call. The shutters would rattle and the bird would do it again.
I had started where the others were, but I wanted a different angle. When the eagle dropped its head again and look straight at us, its eyes looked a bit crossed. The eyes were fine, but that's the nature of the eagle's binocular vision and its long, narrow head.
The bird's eyes became my focus point. I kept a sharp focus on one or the other by using the Auto-focus back button. When the sharpness was right, I'd click a burst of frames.
I used the same approach with each bird I photographed that day. Once you get used to good habits, it's easier to get consistent results. When that happens, I spend less time on the mechanics of the photographs and more time on the artistry. That makes me whistle, too.