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… 🙂