Golden Eagle Takeoff And Flight Series

If my bird photography success rate was as low as the accuracy rate of weather forecasters I think I’d sell my camera gear and hang it up…

After such a good morning up north two days ago with kinglets and warblers I decided to make it two days in a row and do it again yesterday. That trip means a 90 minute drive in the dark for me in order to get there by sunrise but I figured it would be worth it. After all, the forecast for the morning was for “clear and sunny skies” (you know, with that big round bright thing traveling across the sky with no significant clouds and providing plenty of unobstructed light…) with no wind and all those birds would likely still be there so how could I miss? As usual we even checked the radar/satellite loops just before we left to make sure there were no nasty cloud surprises ahead of us. All was clear.

I could see a sky full of stars and a bright moon on the way up there so I was optimistic for a good morning.



But this is what greeted me at sunrise as I arrived on site an hour and a half later – a thick wall of clouds (that hadn’t shown up on the satellite loop) moving in from the north (left) which very soon completely obscured the sun. This was the best light I had all morning and it very quickly got much worse. It could be argued that my best shot of the entire long morning was this one.

I go into all this to provide myself an excuse for the image quality of the following photos. For this Golden Eagle series the light was so poor I had to shoot at ISO 2500 to get enough shutter speed for flight shots. I almost never use ISO’s this high – the only time I’ve ever done it in the past was shooting Sage Grouse on a lek long before sunrise. Because of my high ISO and the fact that I didn’t take the time to mask and sharpen the eagle selectively there’s some noticeable noise in the images, the photos aren’t quite tack sharp and because of the poor light some of the shaded areas have less detail than I prefer.

But hey, it was a Golden Eagle in flight so how could I not post the images! 🙂



1/2000, f/6.3, ISO 2500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

We’d left the area where we had photographed kinglets and warblers the day before in discouragement when we found this juvenile Golden Eagle on the steep hillside above us. At first the bird was facing to the left but when it turned around to face downhill I figured it was about to take off (taking off downhill requires less energy and this direction also provided the bird a bit of a headwind for extra lift).



1/2000, f/6.3, ISO 2500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

And that’s exactly what happened.



1/1600, f/6.3, ISO 2500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

Golden Eagles can have a wingspan of over 7 ft. so they’re very impressive to see up close in a pose like this.



1/1600, f/6.3, ISO 2500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

Those white patches on the ventral surfaces of the wings are indicative of a juvenile bird.

Whenever I see primary feathers bent and curved by air resistance like those on this left wing I have to marvel at the incredible adaptations of feathers for flight.



1/2000, f/6.3, ISO 2500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

The lower legs (tarsi) of Golden Eagles are feathered all the way down to the toes. It can be difficult for novices to tell the difference between Golden Eagles and immature Bald Eagles but this is one of the differences that can be used to distinguish them since Bald Eagles don’t have feathered tarsi.



1/2000, f/6.3, ISO 2500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

This was the last shot I got that was sufficiently sharp in this awful light. I was pleasantly surprised that I have light in the eye in every shot even though the catch lights are often diffused.

My tough luck with Golden Eagles continues. Wouldn’t you know that the one time I get close to my nemesis (and it even takes off at a perfect angle) the light….. just…… sucks.


PS – Don’t get me wrong. I was absolutely delighted just to see this bird at a relatively close distance – that experience actually saved my day. But it sure would have been nice if the light had been better and/or the weather forecasters actually knew what they were talking about.

And apologies to any of my readers who may be in the business of weather forecasting but after this experience (and many, many others just like it) that’s exactly how I’m feeling right now.

And by the way, yesterday I forgot to mention that two days ago I saw my first Bald Eagle of the season, an adult, flying high over the Bear River. They’re returning already!


60 comments to Golden Eagle Takeoff And Flight Series

  • Fran

    Despite the weather these shots are great. Beautiful bird.

  • Wayne Reynolds

    Ron, you captured the majesty of this beautiful Golfen Eagle in spite of poor light. What a magnificent creature and magnificent photos. Thank you for sharing! Absolutely love this series of shots!

  • Marty K

    Just came back from running a couple errands and the sky looks a lot like your first shot. A lot of the smoke from the fire in OC is moving west toward the coast where I am. I came inside and had ash all over me. Our backyard birds have been eerily quiet today. I can only imagine how bad it is up north with so many large fires burning. I looked at the CalFire map and right now, it looks like a good chunk of California’s on fire. Unbelievable.

  • Laura Culley

    Ron, all your quibbles deserve a thwap upside the head! THWAP!! These are glorious, and while it certainly helps that you’ve got a golden, a golden taking off, all in your viewfinder, well, just stop it 😉 Yeah, I know about that perfectionist thing. I GET that, but still! You always begin my day with magic, even though it’s afternoon now. My excuse is that friends are visiting.

  • Patty Chadwick

    That third shot, the take off fling…is incredible, too….

  • Sybil Latham

    Date correction…it was 9/15/207…not 10/15/2017….oops

  • Sybil Latham

    I had never seen a Golden Eagle in the wild until 10/15/2017 when I was visiting Ithaca NY. Late that afternoon I was slowly driving a back road and this giant bird landed in the road 10ft in front of me. It missed it prey but stayed long enough for me to identify it. It had all of the identification markers you mention above and looked exactly like the one in your pictures. It hopped along in front of me, turned, then picked up to fly down the road. I crept along at the same pace as it flew alongside me. Then it flew ahead of me and banked to the right into an open field. All the time it was in the air it was at my eye level. It was all I could do as to not squeal with delight. No camera. No witnesses. But my birding friends that live locally said juveniles are sometimes seen in the area during migration. (Are you reading this Laura Culley?)

    • Laura Culley

      I AM reading it Sybby and I can’t even put words to how delighted I am for you!! There are goldens here, so I’m going to have to keep an eye in the sky while Jack is out playing. We’re taking Jack out in a couple of minutes. It’s REAL windy today, so it might not be a good flight, but you gotta start somewhere. 😉
      As for goldens, give me a golden over a bald eagle any day of the week! Woodg, HG and I were just discussing the outrageous magic of these gorgeous eagles (and other raptors). That they CHOOSE to partner with us falconers is just beyond my comprehension, but boy is it wonderful!
      Gotta get the hawk food ready!!
      And Skye still has her tail! She’ll be out in the field shortly. She was hungry for the first time today. It’s time. Jack knows the sound of the transmitter. Yep, headed out the door soon!

    • Wow, that must have been quite an experience, Sybil!

  • Alice Beckcom

    Ron, I agree with your other readers that these shots are magnificent. I first scrolled through the images and then read your commentary with surprise that you were not pleased with the photos. What a beautiful bird and great shots by you.

    And to think that this bird is a juvenile….can’t imagine what it will look like when mature. Thank you for pointing out the differences between Golden Eagles and Bald Eagles. It is so fortunate that you were there to capture these awesome photos. Thank you, Ron

  • Patty Chadwick

    Nope! Just revisited (4or 5th time)…you are definitely NUTS!!! Ex. Like them all. Love light, colors, everything about the first and last, especially….sorry, I calls ’em as I sees ’em….

  • Majestic and marvellous.
    Which says it all for my often long-winded self this morning.

  • Patty Chadwick

    Just reviewed these images…YOU REALLY ARE NUTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! These are GREAT!!!!!! Please get your eyes checkedi—ASAP!!!!! You might check into getting a dog, too…a lab couod help you a lot!!! Guiding Eyes has some very nice ones…..Jeeeeeeez!!!!!!

    • Patty Chadwick

      Love the colors,everything, in the last, too…

    • Ha, Patty. Believe me, you’re not the first one to call me nuts!

      I DO like the images. But they could have been much better with better light. I think you’re just a little bit biased because you love Golden Eagles so much!

  • Patty Chadwick

    RON DUDLEY, YOU’RE NUTS!!! These are magnificent shots of a magnificent bird!!! Love, love, love the take off shots, but there’s also something very special about the first one, too….I am so glad, and jealous, that you got to see this beautiful, beautiful bird!!!

  • Susan Stone

    I am happy to say that I don’t see any of the problems you mention with this series of photos. I think they are beautiful, and I love that you were able to get so close to this Golden Eagle. The sunrise (something I rarely see) is gorgeous, too.

  • Superb series, Ron!

    Yeah, if we waited for the perfect weather to travel to the perfect spot to photograph the perfect bird with the perfect equipment …….

    How satisfying to achieve excellent results when none of the above occurs at the same time!

    It’s all about the bird and, once again, you have made an awful lot of folks sigh with admiration for a magnificent creature of the air.

    Thank you.

  • Marty K

    She. Is. GORGEOUS!!!!! I totally understand that “so close and yet so far” feeling of what might have been, though. She’s still magnificent and you got a great angle of my favorite raptor pose in the second eagle shot. Plus, you got shots with the pantaloons — and spats (that’s what tarsal feathers remind me of)! 🙂 The sunrise is pretty spectacular too. *Goes to do happy dance after seeing all these Golden photos.* VBG. 😀

  • Trudy Brooks

    I don’t care if the light was not good, I think they are beautiful pictures for my eyes to see. Sure it could be a little brighter, but you took some wonderful shots. You may decide not to sale them, but at least you were there in the moment. Love the pictures, love the subject and love your stories! Life in the Wild. Many thanks Ron.

    • You’re right, Trudy. These photos could have been much better with decent light but I’m darned glad to have them as they are. And to have had the experience with such a magnificent bird.

  • Dick Harlow

    Well, if you had had a good day for light you wouldn’t have seen this gorgeous Golden Eagle. I love all the shots even with your critical critique, but shots 3 and 4 are my favorites!
    Golden Eagles are an awesome predator and when seen in the sky one is mesmerized by their beauty, their wingspan and if you have been lucky enough to watch one take a rabbit their capture is a phenomenal sight.
    You can understand why the Indians (Native Americans) reviewed this bird!
    Many thanks for the post!

    • Dick Harlow

      Sorry about that, but reviewed is supposed to be REVERED.

    • “if you had had a good day for light you wouldn’t have seen this gorgeous Golden Eagle”

      Dick, Facebook friend Muffy S. Gately made exactly that point. And you’re both right. Thinking about it from that angle changes my perspective a little…

  • I fully agree with Charlotte Norton’s comments. There’s no reason to make any excuses for these images; they’re all wonderful but I especially like the second of the eagle series. The colors of the rock, grass, lichens, etc. really add to the beauty of this magnificent species!

  • Dee Renee Ericks

    Incredibly beautiful images! Excellent capture.

    In the Pacific NW gloom, these settings are the best we could hope for!

    • Good point about the Pacific NW, Dee. I was in Seattle once in mid-August and it was so damn cold and wet I got very sick with borderline pneumonia. Bird photography must be very challenging up there!

  • Ron: These shots are just beautiful – they tug at my heart with their beauty. Forget ISO 2500, cloudy skies … True beauty is true beauty.

  • Dick Ashford

    Hi Ron,
    Great images of one of my favorite raptors!

    Weather forecasters? I once had a statistics professor who, just to see if we were paying attention, would say things like ”If there’s a 50-50 chance that a forecast will go wrong, 9 times out of 10 it will.” Think about it…😀

  • I agree with the other commenters that those eagle shots are great. However, the sunrise photo is an absolutely beautiful one. IHMO, what heavy clouds take away from bird photography is often given back in sunrise/sunset photos.

  • Really impressive series! That one with the wing span? WOW!

  • Gail Rich

    The photo where are the wings are fully spread made me gasp. Thank you, Ron!

  • Charlotte Norton

    A lot of photographers can get good shots in perfect light, but it takes a MASTER to get an awesome series like this in such low light.


  • Christine

    Jaw-droppingly, wow–Ron! I feel your “pain,” but heck these are great captures of a gorgeous bird. We are glad that you persisted 😉

  • Judy Gusick

    Bravo! Wonderful shots noise/whatever be damned! 🙂 Weather forecasters hate my “neck of the woods” as, until it comes together, they REALLY don’t have a clue. 3 & 4 are my favorites besides the sunrise…………….:)

    • Yeah, and have you ever noticed that the next day, after a forecast that was completely wrong, TV weather folks almost never bring up how wrong they were the day before? Drives me nuts! In my household weather forecasters take a lot of (well deserved) abuse.

  • Barbara

    How beautiful. We have Bald Eagles in Florida, but no Golden Eagles. Have only seen in a zoo, wonderful to see in the wild.