A Golden Eagle And Frustration Rock

This damned rock has bamboozled me once again but this time it did it with my most desired photographic quarry. I call it “frustration rock” for very good reason.


Anyone familiar with Antelope Island will likely recognize this scene. This is the fairly short road to the parking lot for the trailhead to Frary Peak. Parts of it are an incredible 23% grade – much, much steeper than it looks here. For comparison’s sake the maximum grade allowed on US Interstates is 7%. Our notoriously steep I-80 up Parley’s Canyon here in Utah is 6% at its steepest.

The large rock next to the road on the right is a favorite perch for many birds, including raptors. It sits high on the side of the mountain overlooking a huge bowl (largely out of frame to the right) that can be hunted by raptors using the rock as a perch. But there’s a huge problem with photographing birds on that rock because you approach it from the north which nearly always makes a bird perched there strongly backlit. In my opinion those types of images of birds usually (though not always) suck.

I took this documentary image of the road and the rock yesterday from the south, looking north.



If you’re lucky enough to have already passed the rock, turned around in the parking lot, and then find a bird on the rock as you’re coming back down the hill you can get some nice shots in good light – but that’s about your only chance with raptors.  A few of the smaller birds might stick on the rock as you go by it to get better light but there’s very little chance of a raptor putting up with that. You’re just too close to the rock as you pass.

A few years ago I caught this juvenile Red-tailed Hawk just as it was landing on the rock. It wasn’t there when I went up the hill but in the minute or so it took me to turn around and begin to descend – voila, there it was! But believe me, that very seldom happens.


Ok, enough prelude – here’s what happened with the Golden Eagle three days ago. Fair warning – from this point on you’ll see only crappy images.

To give readers a sense of distance the following three photos are all full frame (uncropped). The first one was taken with my 500mm + 1.4 tc and the next two with my 100-400mm @ 400mm.


As I was coming up the hill and began to turn the first corner I saw something very large on the rock. It was backlit of course and it was so big that at first I thought someone might have placed a rock cairn on the rock. Out of curiosity I scoped it with my 500mm and even in this light I could immediately tell it was a Golden Eagle (instead of a juvenile Bald Eagle) because in one pose I got a glimpse of golden plumage on its neck. In ten years I had never seen an eagle of either species perched here.

My heart immediately started pounding. It’s typically impossible to get within a hundred yards of a perched Golden Eagle and I was already closer than that. And Goldens are my #1 photo quarry so my mind was racing. How in the hell was I going to get on the other side of that bird for good light?

I quickly realized I had no reasonable options. My only choice was to drive up the road and hope the eagle let me get past it without flying off but the chances of that were essentially nonexistent because I’d pass within about 25′ of where the bird was perched and 25′ from a wild Golden Eagle just isn’t going to happen without it flying off. I watched if for a while hoping not to disturb it but realized that someone else could drive down from the parking lot at any second and scare it off so I decided to make a cautious approach and see what happened.



So I started driving up the hill at about 1 mph while steering with my knee and watching the eagle through my smaller 100-400mm zoom lens. Every foot of progress I made without the eagle flying off amazed me.



I was parallel to the rock when the eagle spooked – so close that it filled my frame vertically at only 400mm just before it flew. I was actually at the point where I was about to begin getting further away from the eagle again on the “good side” for light so my heart sank when it launched. You can see the tip of the rock at bottom left.



To put things in perspective – the red “paw” in the center marks where I was when I first spotted the eagle and took the first photo of it above. I got to the second red paw before it flew off – perhaps 75 yards further up the hill.

It isn’t even a horse race for me to decide which have been my two most frustrating bird photography experiences over the past 10 years. This is one of them and both involved Golden Eagles. In my almost 70 years of living in the American West I’d never before been anywhere near this close to a wild Golden Eagle and I came away from it with only poor quality documentary images.

Maybe posting about this one will help me to put it behind me. Mia wasn’t with me when it happened and I think she may be getting tired of hearing about it… 🙂



32 comments to A Golden Eagle And Frustration Rock

  • Dennis Coleman

    That is a bummer of a tale. Perhaps there is a nesting pair on the island because, interestingly, on Feb. 23 I also had a close encounter with a GE near the turnoff to White Rock Bay. It was 30 yards off the road and very focused on eating a jack rabbit that it had killed. Also, it was intent on protecting its prey from the two ravens and 6 magpies waiting for the leftovers. Strong South winds, poor light and sagebrush partially blocking my view made it impossible to get decent photographs even though I tried. When the adrenaline wore off all I could do was smile at how lucky I was to witness that extraordinary event and I was very thankful that the image was permanently imprinted on my brain. With all the time you spend in the field I’m sure you have had hundreds of moments like that. And we both know, there will always be a next time.

  • Alice Beckcom

    What a grand bird! Thank you for the photos, even if you got very frustrated. I also enjoyed the photos of Antelope Island and the information you provided about the Grade vs. Parley’s Canyon. Now I better understand why Google indicates that it takes 1 hour and 20 minutes to go 7.6 miles on Antelope Island Road! We’ll have to go there in our Jeep!! Thanks again.

    • Alice, That’s the only steep road on the island and most any vehicle can handle it just fine but there’s good reason why they always close it when there’s snow on the ground. I have no idea why google would say that about Antelope Island Road. It’s a longer road than that but it’s paved and in good condition.

  • Sigh.
    And hiss and spit.
    Lucky to have seen it (so very lucky) but…
    I suspect the air around me would have been blue, as I cursed fate/luck/whatever.

  • frank sheets

    You probably would never go there, and either do I perhaps because I don’t have a clue how to use it, but……….. fill flash for back-lite subjects.

  • frank sheets

    I was holding my breath as I read your post and I could feel my blood pressure go up as well. My heart rate is still elevated. Just starting to calm down a little as I press the “Post Comment” button. That was exciting for me, and I can’t comprehend how you must have felt.

    • It was intense, Frank – very intense. For the rest of my morning on the island all I could think about was that eagle and I probably missed spotting several birds because of it.

  • Marty K

    I can only imagine your frustration — and creative use of vocabulary — at being so close, yet so far. I’m impressed that he stuck around as long as he did, though. I like the two silouhettes very much, especially the second one because it shows off some of the detail of the rock. In that one it looks like he may have a full crop, although I can’t be sure.

    I also like the “dammit!!!”* shot because of the light on the secondaries and the head as well as a good view of those talons. You even have some catchlight in the eye. Plus, there seems to be a bit of lagniappe from his last meal on the side of his beak.

    *or insert curse word of your choice

    • Good eye about the full crop, Marty. I missed that and I usually notice such things. Perhaps that’s part of the reason it was apparently reluctant to fly.

      And I’ll admit that I had to look lagniappe up. Thanks for the new word!

  • Chris Sanborn

    Even “just” in silhouette, that is one gorgeous raptor! So I can understand your frustration at not being able to get the right lighting for the photo of your dreams.
    (May I say, though, that’s beautiful young Red-tail you did get?) 😎

    • Thank you, Chris. I like that red-tail shot too, though the light was a bit harsh and looking at it now I think I over-sharpened it a little.

  • Great story Ron, you had me “there with you”. I could feel the excitement, and the frustration. Wondering if the golden eagle would stay put as you crept on by. Getting the light angles right on golden eagles seems to be the holy grail, at least for me it is. One of these days though… 🙂

  • Patty Chadwick

    I love the first image of the eagle..perched on the rock, silhouetted against the sky…I’d know what it was in a hearbeat! I can understand you feelings of frustration with this bird because living in the East, although apparently there are the rare,occassional sightings of these magnificent birds, I’ve never seen one here…I ‘ve seen plenty of Bald Eagles here (mostly on the Hudson River) but never my favorite, the Golden…

    • Patty, It wasn’t so easy (for me at least) to make the ID with the naked eye with it backlit but when I scoped it at 1120mm it became obvious.

  • Roger Burnard

    Ron, I think all of us, who have been photographing wildlife for any period of time, have had similar experiences,
    so I can say with all honesty that “we feel your pain.” I can offer few words of comfort other than the thought,
    that someday, maybe, you will get that shot of a Golden Eagle that has thus evaded you… I wish you luck. ;-)))

  • Dick Harlow

    Pessimism isn’t in my vocabulary, but frustration is! As a Nature Photographer or for that matter any photographer deals with frustration in many ways. I tend to believe, as you have already done in other shots, get your chance for an excellent shot of a Golden. Your willingness to share your ups and downs as a teacher sheds light into your wonderful nature as a human being! Frustration aside, your reward is every day you step outside to hunt! Many thanks for sharing.

    • Ha, if you’d heard what I said when the eagle flew off you wouldn’t be too sure about my “wonderful nature”, Dick. But thanks for the benefit of the doubt! 🙂

      • Dick Harlow

        Ah that’s nothing, that is just frustration talking! I do the same thing, spent 7 yrs in the Army!

  • Judy Gusick

    I KNOW that kind of frustration and the back lit thing that also creates problems! Have a power pole across the creek that is a perching area for Eagles and Hawks. 🙁 At least you “saw it” even if it’s small consolation!

  • D.Gusset

    Dear Ron,
    Oh how frustrating ! Oh how close !
    I feel your pain, good story 🙂

  • Mk

    Hey, I am envious you saw and documented such a wonderful sight. And with a certain crop, that silhouette could be very artistic. I would be just as happy as I was frustrated, if I was behind your lens!