December 2009 Squaw Creek Bald Eagles *many graphic*

I regret spending what I spent for this winter eagle migration at Squaw Creek. I knew it was going to get abruptly cold, probably too much so in the process. This isn't good when November was abnormally warm, even way up into Canada. So the whole geese and eagle migration through this area was already sort of being delayed. Then the weather was going to go abruptly well below normal, with a "blizzard" mixed in for good measure. Followed by some days with highs struggling to reach 10F. This freezes over the extremely shallow waters at Squaw Creek NWR. I don't think anywhere out there is 5 feet deep and most of it is probably around 2-3. Freeze that all over and you can say bye bye to the hundreds of thousands of geese and ducks. Say bye bye to those and you can say bye bye to the eagles. But me, when I want to do something, I don't want to wait. So I ignored the obvious model warnings and hoped for the best. I wanted to rent a huge canon telephoto and get some crazy eagle action shots, potentially ones of them taking geese or ducks.

Renting has its own issues, like how long to rent. You can add weeks on at the end if you need them, but they would have been cheaper if you rented for that length to start, as there is no discount for later weeks like there is if you do it all at once. So I went with 21 days. Turns out it was pointless beyond day 10, which was one of their renting options. But I couldn't be sure of that at the start. So that alone pretty much doubled what I spent on this. Had I gone with 10 days and that cost, I'd be a little more content right now with what I took away.

By the way, what I rented was a Canon 600mm F4, a 1.4x converter, a 2x converter, and a wimberly II gimbal head. Just a hair over $1k for 21 days. Then factor in gas down and back about 10 times. Probably about another $400. Being as broke as I am, I didn't do this without thinking it could pay for itself. I figured it could, given enough effort and the right crazy shot or shots. Hell I went down there 11 times in 22 days this spring. I've now sold that geese footage 2 times to two Japanese tv programs. That sure as hell wasn't counted on! LOL. I was like, you want geese video? This from a chaser that hasn't sold/licensed storm video since 2003. Geese video? Really? LOL. Anyway, the one covered this lens rental, and so that helped me figure, hey, I can justify a big rental now and hopefully get it to pay for itself. Not a horribly smart thought process, considering how saturated wildlife stuff is.

But I now know, or am rather damn sure, what I was able to get is not going to pay for itself. I tried. Just not great conditions. Reminds me of my thought process before going to Yellowstone last year and at a very similar cost. That was a massive fail, and not just paying for itself, but just a massive fail lol. I may have learned to not drop $1k in the fall with any hopes of paying for itself again. Anyway, there just weren't many ops for crazy eagle shots. The best way to get those is having edge ice, as in ice just on the edge/near the shore. Instead one of the first days the whole west section pretty much froze over, while none of the east section had any ice. Then soon after both sides/sections there froze over almost completely. Then the eagles have ice everywhere, far out there to sit on. And that is what they do. Park it in the middle where you can't go. A half mile away or so. It is pretty annoying to watch them hunting like mad way out where you can't go. The rapid ice formation sent the vast majority of the geese on their way early too. It could have been worse though. So anyway, the next three pages is most of what I took away from this investment. It's not something I plan to do many times again. Though I am and will be really tempted to do the 7 day rental route. I went with 21 days knowing that more options always trump less. You could get a week of cirrus clouds or worse. And I was really motivated to get something crazy, so I just went for the 21 days. It's not just weather you try and time either, but the eagle migration max. At least I didn't do the 800mm Canon at almost double the price. The 600mm is a $8300 lens fwiw. Man it would be so cool to actually own one of those and always have it to take out. And after using it with the 1.4x, for 840mm....I can firmly say 600mm doesn't feel like enough. 800mm feels rather ideal for wildlife. As sharp as the 600mm is with a 1.4x...and given it is still a F5.6 lens then(so has autofocus still), I don't see much of any reason to rent or dare buy a 800mm canon. Then again there is the whole weight thing. The 600mm is stupidly heavy....800mm is lighter. Anyway, not a problem I'll have to worry about anytime soon lol(dropping $8k or more on a camera lens). It was fun to rent one of those though. Lots of people stop and talk to you, which isn't always a good thing.

Some I tried the 2x on it, and even the 2x with 1.4x stacked. They were that far away! Stacked was very pointless. I can't say the 2x was ever close to wonderful. 99% of the time it had the 1.4x on it for 840mm and was very happy that way.

Like I said, some are graphic. This is nearly a 100% crop with noise removal used via neat image. The top eagle is carrying a goose head, with spinal cord still attached, and with one leg still attached to that. I saw them flying around with that and was like, what are they carrying. Then I zoomed in on the lcd and thought, ahhhh....lovely.

I'm strange perhaps. One of the last things I want to see or hear is what I heard and saw this spring there. Crying ducks and geese as eagles killed them. It's going to happen if I'm there or not. You still can't help but feel sorry for them. Even more than just feeling sorry, but feeling pissed off none of the goose or duck's buddies will help him. I knew how much I did not want to see that, but here I am, renting a big lens with the idea of capturing this part of nature. Like two aspects of myself clashing away. I guess it is the simple fact it's going to happen either way. Guess most of us are all so detached from that big aspect of life, that we are curious. I'm glad that in the end of this set of trips, this time I never had to witness any of that, even if I figured it would be amazing to capture it full frame somehow. All the action I saw was with already dead geese.

It's one thing for a goose to be shot or something, it's just a whole lot different picture when you realize you are watching a live goose being eaten from as it lays there crying. Just a rather blunt reminder Earth isn't exactly this wonderful experience for all. More than a reminder, it just has a way of making you question harder than perhaps you recently had been. I enjoy questioning and wondering, even if I'll never know any answers.

This eagle on the top would become my "buddy". Without him, this whole deal would have been an even greater let down. I know which one he is, you'll see him on here later. And I say let down because for one I never got the sort of shots I had hoped for, and secondly, regardless of how much you see on here, there were very few ops to get them the several days I spent down there. For as much as renting this setup cost, I had hoped to come back with a really massive collection 21 days later.

Graphic, it probably gets a little worse. That is corn, from the goose, you see falling in the air.

If you are new to shooting eagles or flying birds, do yourself a favor and have the camera set right. Use servo autofocus. This setting will keep your focus changing/tracking if you have the shutter half down. If you are on one shot it will only try and focus once. That is pretty useless for this sort of thing. Nice to just let it track on servo. Then use one metering point/focus point instead of all of them, preferably the center one. Last is make sure if you have the focus range selections on your lens it is the furthest to infinity. Like on mine it has two, 1.8 meters to infinity or 6.5 meters to infinity. Using 6.5 to infinity will prevent it from hunting for focus clear back to 1.8 meters. Then it spends more time out where it needs to be. The 600mm F4 had 3 options.

This is how geese end up in pieces. Grab and fly. And just to mention it, it's just the adult bald eagles that have the white heads and tails. They get the white around age 4-5 years. So if it doesn't have a white head, it is a juvenile up to 4 years of age. Quite often those juvi's will send off the adults. Don't think there is a huge pecking order, at least by age/head type. I still have yet to see a for sure golden eagle. Many juvi's will look like them. Sounds like one trick is the golden eagle's will have feathering down to their toes. You can see on the two above that is way up on their ankle or legs.

There is my "buddy" on the right again. You'd think you couldn't tell them apart, but I know my "buddy".

Foot in mouth.

Man how I'd love to get a lot closer more often. Just look how mean his face looks. They look mean and they have blood all over.

I'm constantly amazed at what these eagles will do with one another in fighting for food, with all the food there is around there to just go get themselves. They evidently really don't like to take live geese. Yet some days like last year they go nuts on all live ones.

They do this a lot too. One on the ground will jump up just enough to put his feet up above him.

One of my favorite shots from the trips. Wish the shutter had been quicker, but it was a cloudy day.

His eye is grey/blue'ish as he is blinking his nictating membrane. It helps protect their eyes as well as clearing anything out of them.

I think this is the one that just moved the leg from his mouth to his feet in flight. They do that. Take off with mouth then move it to feet for flight.

It is so hard to track flying eagles at 840mm when you get them nearly full frame. Hell it is usually hard to just find them in the air at 840mm. The only real way to do this is to get one down low coming at you. If they come towards you sort of higher up off the ground some, it's really hard to get and keep them in frame for a sharp shot. Of course here this year it was hard to just ever get many chances at it.

My buddy eagle. Check out his two eye colors. He was the most friendly one out there, often sitting closer to the shore. It is messed up just how little even 840mm does. You'd think, oh dang, 840mm would rule and you wouldn't have to be close at all to get shots. Well it doesn't do as much as one would think. This eagle was very close to the shore.

Different day now, as the sun is out. Had a brief point where some adults got closer.

Cropped in some but still.

That is my "buddy" on the left. Didn't he look like such the nice friendly eagle a few images up? He's got this adult next to him saying, "Fine, chill out dude, I'm backing off." He's also blinking his nictating membrane which makes him look more evil.

My two eye colored buddy eagle above the goose.

Same eagle on left. He awarded me my best eagle shots to date.

This adult on the bottom is the coolest looking eagle I've ever seen. Look how long his hair is! Like he's grandpa bearded eagle or something. Blood out the side of his mouth as well.

Taking it with him.

Pretty sure this goose was already dead too. I think they counted 167 eagles here around now. Just too bad so many were so far out there.

Here is my buddy eagle again. Had he not been here, I'd hardly have any closer shots. These here are cropped in a bit. Nasty you can see the corn in there.

It is crazy how nice this eagle looked sitting near the shore a couple days prior, with his unique two eye colors. Right now he simply looks evil. Nictating membrane over his eyes again.

Now this isn't cropped in. It's pretty crazy at full size. What I started doing was having the focus just right, and then putting it back on manual. Then I'd wait for them to jump up. I'd fire off a quick 3 or 4, with my finger ready on the focus switch, throwing it back on auto for after he was in flight. Otherwise you just couldn't be sure you were getting him as he took off, and not refocusing on the ice behind him, if you had the focus point off to the side at all.

This was a much later day, after most all of the ducks and geese took off. Eagles were still there but way off shore. I had just blown two options with an eagle coming back to trees on shore, since they crossed down the road too far, where I'd just came. As I was setting up just before this, I see the tripod leg sliding down. I then see the eagle coming. Great. So here I was with this 12 lb lens on the tripod, leaning it over on two legs trying to balance it and track this eagle at 840mm. It is a lot harder than I bet most imagine. If you don't keep him right behind your focus point it will go way out of focus on you. And you cant have the lens whipping around if you want it sharp. Even with a gimbal head it can be pretty tough to get them at anything near filling the frame. I had to crop in just a bit on these.

Wasn't much cropping in on this one. He wasn't extremely sharp either though.

Massive crop in on this one.

Almost no cropping in on the above. This is by far the hardest one to get, directly above you. It is because they are passing you by much quicker at that angle than coming at you head on down low. Then add in it is awkward pointing up like that.

Now this was a little crazy. I saw this goose out there, on the left, with a broken wing. That is the sort of thing these eagles love. They spook up flocks of geese looking for the wounded still sitting in the water. Seeing this guy out there by himself, with an eagle nearby, I figured he was toast. I thought, you'd better hide or at least start walking away from this eagle and his food.

Before long more eagles showed up. This wounded goose then takes it upon himself to walk over to them! Just look at the eagles, lol, "Are you stupid or something." Maybe his strategy was to just act crazy.

More eagles! I think six now. One of them sitting right by him had been giving him that look. Like the gangster movie long stare deal, like you aren't welcome here goose. Then the wind would hit the goose and he'd fall over and then look very much like what he was, wounded. Each time that would happen I thought they'd pounce on him. This one in the air gives a weak attempt at it.

Grabs him and takes him down. I thought, you dumb goose, you walked over there.

Look at him go now though! He thinks he is boss. I wonder if he knew the dead goose, as often you'll see a pair of geese hanging out all day. But I also saw him trying to save a leg he was chewing on later, so maybe he wanted some of the goose too. Later an eagle stole that leg from him btw.

Amazing. He's now pretty much standing over the dead goose, with 6 eagles right there wanting to eat. Notice his right wing hanging out there, that is how it always was, surely broken.

He now has 8 bald eagles around him.

Check this out, he picked this fight right here/above. The eagle was just standing there and he went over and started giving him hell, honking at him.

He then did a karate like chop thing. He isn't just slipping here. He had jumped up and tried to kick the eagle with his feet. This went on long enough for me to get bored with it and go elsewhere. Much later in the day I saw that same goose out there on his own, alive and well(minus the broken wing).