Trip Report: Bald Eagles in Washington

April 06, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

Bald_eagle_WASB_2022_26Bald_eagle_WASB_2022_26A pair of bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) fly together against a stormy blue sky above Hood Canal, Washington.

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Better late than never, right? 

I can't believe it has been almost a year since my visit to Washington state to photograph bald eagles along the shores of Hood Canal yet I have not shared my story about the trip. As you read on, you will discover why.

That trip produced some of my best bald eagle photos. It also reminded me that I am not 20 anymore. 

Bald_eagle_WASB_2022_23Bald_eagle_WASB_2022_23A three-shot composite of a bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) catching a fish in the waters of Hood Canal, Washington.


(This photo is a composite of three images showing the action of the eagle catching the midshipman fish.)

I did a ton of research prior to the trip and learned all I could about timing, locations, impact of the tides and what types of photos to expect to capture. 

There is an oyster bed along the eastern shore of Hood Canal that is exposed during low tide. In May and through June, midshipman (a type of eel-like looking fish) come to the area to spawn. They also get snagged in those sharp oyster shells when the water rushes out to the Pacific Ocean during low tide. 

Bald_eagle_WASB_2022_30Bald_eagle_WASB_2022_30A bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) soars across a sky patterned in blue and green of the distant forest on a rainy day as the bird rearranges a midshipman in its talons as it flies above Hood Canal near Seattle, Washington.

Bald eagles as well as other scavenger and protein-eating birds, like great blue herons, American crows and various gulls, have also discovered this convenient food source. Maybe as many as 100 bald eagles congregate in the area during this time period, and that has attracted dozens of photographers as well.

My trip started like anyone else's in the area. I would arrive a few hours before low tide to make sure I had the best spot along the shore littered with seaweed and shells. Timing is important because at high tide, the beach is covered by several feet of water. Wait for the water to recede, however, and you can pick your spot before other photographers arrive. And then you have another couple of hours after low tide before the water gets too high for the eagles to pull the fish caught in the oyster shells.

On my first day, I heard, and heeded, the warning, "Watch that green stuff. That seaweed is very slippery." I carefully navigated around the piles of seaweed that remained on the beach. In some spots it was tough, but all went well. 

Bald_eagle_WASB_2022_11Bald_eagle_WASB_2022_11A bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) soars across the cloudy sky near Seattle, Washington.

There is also a rock wall that needs to be climbed down to access the beach. It isn't a high wall — maybe two or three feet — but it is a wall nonetheless. 

I pride myself on being active in the Rocky Mountains. I know how to navigate rocks and uneven terrain. 

That doesn't mean, however, I considered the combination of a rock wall, seaweed and algae covered rocks. I still don't believe that is exactly what happened. 

The first day was fantastic. Eagles flew in from the right, with photographers yelling, "Here comes one with a fish." Another would exclaim, "Coming in from the left."

Bald_eagle_WASB_2022_28Bald_eagle_WASB_2022_28A pair of bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) squabbles over fish at low tide in Hood Canal near Seattle, Washington.

I finished the day with 1,525 images. My average for a new destination is about 1,000. 

Day number two started just like the first day with the waiting on the receding water to expose the fish to bring in the herons and eagles. As the water reached that lowest point, however, I took a tumble down that rock wall after going to the car for who knows what now. 

Of course my first instinct was to look up and see if anyone saw. No one had. Phew, thank goodness. They were too busy photographing the eagles in their feeding frenzy. 

But when I went to stand up, I realized the rest of the trip would be different. 

Somehow my left knee gave way, like a tendon or ligament had torn, and my leg just buckled under me. I could no longer put any weight on it; it just wanted to give again. 

I stood there, holding onto the rock wall, watching all the photographers capturing those shots — eagles diving in from the left, two fighting over a fish on the right, another soaring above against those pretty clouds. I calculated my options, but really there was only one option: find a way to keep shooting.

Bald_eagle_WASB_2022_22Bald_eagle_WASB_2022_22A bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) floats in for a landing near Seattle, Washington.

I was determined. Fighting the pain, I hobbled back to my tripod and my friend. At first she didn't realize anything was wrong. Then I mentioned I would need some help. She was fantastic, springing into action to get an elastic wrap for my knee. 

After returning from the drug store, and me wrapping up my knee in the best I could remember from my first-aid class (so glad my first use of that knowledge in all these years of guiding was on me!), I went right back to shooting. I wasn't going to miss anymore of that wonderful photo opportunity. 

That day garnered 1043 photos. 

Since I could no longer stand, we stopped at a sporting goods store to pick up a stool. (If more time was available or trying to find an option for traveling, a telescoping stool would work too.) Luck was back on my side as there was only one left — a perfect little triangular folding stool that would easily fit in my suitcase for the flight home. Finding a way to get ice on my knee was also important.

bald_eagle_WASB_2022_7bald_eagle_WASB_2022_7A bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) defends its midshipman fish while another eagle tries to steal it on a sunny day along Hood Canal, Washington.

Day number three turned out just as great as the first two days with more eagle action. Although I could no longer maneuver around as quickly, being confined to a chair and limited to one leg for rearranging my location or angle, I was just as determined to get the images I envisioned. 

Day three produced 826 images.

That mission was accomplished. Although we had to cut the trip short by a day to fly back home early to beat a spring snowstorm, it has become one of my favorite destinations for bald eagles. 

As for the knee, it turned out it was a sprain. After about six months of physical therapy, all was better on the knee. They never could explain why the knee buckled like it did. But I hope it shows just how dedicated I am to getting just the right shot!

Bald_eagle_WASB_2022_12Bald_eagle_WASB_2022_12A pair of bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) clash in midair as they fight over a fish on a sunny day in western Washington state.

We spent one afternoon visiting Olympic National Park as well to photograph waterfalls and rhododendrons. Spring is my favorite time of year to photograph waterfalls, as they bust with heavy snowmelt, but the already green rainforest of the Olympic peninsula seems to get even more verdant in spring. 

Marymere_Falls_ONP_2022_1Marymere_Falls_ONP_2022_1Marymere Falls cascades down a mountain on a sunny afternoon in Olympic National Park, Washington.

Rhododendron_ONP_2022_1Rhododendron_ONP_2022_1A rhododendron bush on a sunny afternoon in Olympic National Park, Washington. With the grand prize photo in the 2016 Audubon Photography Contest coming from this location, there are many opportunities for unbelievable images. 

Interested in learning more about this location and how to photograph all this eagle activity plus enjoy an afternoon photographing waterfalls? Join me on this year's photo adventure — sans swan dives from rock walls — via Wildside Nature Tours.

Dates: May 31 - June 4, 2024 
Price: $2650 per person, double occupancy

Camera equipment: All of these images were taken with my Nikon D850 and Nikon 500mm f4 lens. On this year's trip, I am looking forward to using my new Nikon Z9, which does a fantastic job with birds in flight, and a Nikon 1.4 teleconverter with the 500mm lens.

 


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