Photographing the Bald Eagles of the Skagit River

Bald Eagle In Tree

f/4 at 1/800 seconds, ISO 640
Canon EOS 7D, EF500mm f/4L IS USM at 500mm

I could hear them before it was light enough to see. As the sky brightened I could see them circling above me – at first just two, then eight, which ramped up to twelve, and finally I could count nineteen. The steadily rising sun revealed six more perched in the trees across the river from me.  I could count 25 bald eagles and the day had only just begun. Before the day was through I would lose count somewhere between three and four hundred.

The Skagit River

The Skagit River runs 150 miles from the British Columbia interior to its delta in Puget Sound. Along the way it drains some of the wildest country in the contiguous United States, including a large portion of North Cascades National Park.

Peaks Above The Skagit River

f/10 at 1/400 seconds, ISO 200
Canon EOS 7D, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM at 45mm

While all five pacific salmon species spawn in the Skagit River and its tributaries, it’s the midwinter run of Chum Salmon (Oncorhynchus keta) that attracts the largest concentration of bald eagles in the lower 48 states from as far away as Alaska and Montana. The Chum start swimming up the river to spawn in late November and the eagles arrive soon after. The numbers of both species along the river peak in mid-January.

The number of eagles that spend the winter on the Skagit fluctuates year-to-year, with the peak population reaching above 800 in some years and as few as 300 in others. Counterintuitively, it is not a difference in the number of spawning salmon, which remains fairly constant in the Skagit, that is responsible for this wide variation. Rather, it is the success or failure of the salmon runs in other Pacific Northwest rivers that cause the swing in numbers. When surrounding rivers are having poor salmon years, the Skagit, as one of the healthier rivers in the area, is able to absorb eagles that are having trouble finding food elsewhere. Other factors, such as flooding, which can make the salmon harder to catch or flush their carcasses down the river and/or harder to reach underwater, also affect the number of eagles on the river.

Salmon Carcass

f/10 at 1/80 seconds, ISO 400
Canon EOS 7D, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM at 40mm

Haliaeetus leucocephalus

An adult bald eagle is instantly recognizable due to its striking white head and tail feathers, as well as a bright yellow beak. Females are slightly larger than males, weighing up to ten pounds, with wingspans that can exceed six feet.

Juveniles are quite cryptically colored, with primarily dark brown plumage streaked with lighter feathers on their breasts and underwings. They also have dark bills, lacking the bright yellow bill of the adults.  They do share the same yellow feet however. Young eagles gain their adult plumage at about five years of age when they become sexually mature. This difference in appearance is especially noticeable when rafting down the river. You’ll easily be able to pick out adults perched in trees a half mile away due to their gleaming white heads, but it is not unusual for a juvenile to remain unnoticed until it takes flight from its perch as the raft passes beneath it.

Juvenile Bald Eagle In Flight

f/4 at 1/1000 seconds, ISO 400
Canon EOS 7D, EF500mm f/4L IS USM at 500mm

On the Skagit, both adults and juveniles spend their nights roosting in trees along the river’s flood plain. They awake just before dawn to begin feeding. Their period of highest activity is from sunrise to mid-morning, when it is common to see them fishing and feeding along the river.  When the skies are clear, the eagles begin dispersing from the river as the day wears on, and large numbers can sometimes be seen riding thermals above the peaks surrounding the river valley.  On rainy days, the eagles stay closer to the river, making this an ideal, if slightly uncomfortable time for photography.

Getting the Shot | General Advice

The bright white heads and tails of the adults, the very atrributes that makes them so striking and photogenic, can make exposures quite difficult when they are in direct sunlight. You’ll want to dial in an exposure compensation of between -2 and -3 stops in this situation. Watch your histogram and set your camera to “blink” blown out highlights when previewing the image on the camera’s LCD.

2011-01-09_124945_01964.jpg

Bald Eagle

f/4 at 1/1000 seconds, ISO 320
Canon EOS 7D, EF500mm f/4L IS USM at 500mm

Getting the Shot | From the Shore

The salmon, and hence the eagles, are most plentiful along a 10 mile stretch of the river between the towns of Rockport and Marblemount, which sit at the confluences of two of the Skagit’s main tributaries; the Sauk and Cascade Rivers respectively. Highway 20 parallels the river for much of this distance and eagles may be seen just about anywhere along the way, but there are three spots in particular worth calling out for photography. The first is the highway 530 bridge that crosses the Skagit at the town of Rockport. There is a pedestrian sidewalk on this bridge that provides an elevated viewpoint up and down the river, and eagles can often be seen perched in nearby trees. There is parking at Howard Miller Steelhead Park just down river from the bridge. This park is home to the Skagit Bald Eagle Interpretive Center which is open on the weekends throughout the eagle season.

View area on map

The next photography hotspot is a large parking lot and picnic area right along the river’s edge at mile marker 100. It is not unusual for eagles to be perched in the trees fringing the riverbank, allowing for extremely close views. This is also a great spot to view eagles as they fly up and down the river.

Bald Eagle In Flight

f/4 at 1/1000 seconds, ISO 320
Canon EOS 7D, EF500mm f/4L IS USM at 500mm

The last, and my favorite spot for eagle photography along Highway 20, is an additional mile upstream at mile marker 101. The Skagit makes a sweeping turn at this point with a large gravel bar at the bend.  This is the prime location to see the eagles catch and eat salmon from the road. It also makes a great sunrise location, as the direction of the river coming into the bend is close to where the sun first appears over the mountains. Use this opportunity to get backlit shots of the eagles that can nearly always be found perched in the trees across the river before the sun rises too high. You can get some dramatic images if the weather and eagles cooperate, especially if there is morning mist rising along the river. There are numerous small pullouts along the highway to park in. Be sure to park well off the road and move to the river side of the concrete barrier for safety when photographing from this location.

The biggest challenge with photography at all three of these areas is that the road is on the north side of the river, and the sun will be low to the south in the midwinter sky making it all too easy to capture nothing but eagle silhouettes with blown out white sky behind them. In most cases, you’ll get better photos if you move up or down river from an eagle until the light is coming in from the side, whereas moving as close as you can to the bird usually means you’ll be shooting directly into the sun.

Bald Eagle In Morning Mist

f/13 at 1/500 seconds, ISO 400
Canon EOS 7D, EF500mm f/4L IS USM +1.4x at 700mm

Getting the Shot | From the Water

Another option for getting great photos is to leave dry land behind and sign up for a float trip down the Skagit. There are numerous companies that offer trips between Marblemount and Rockport during eagle season. This is a great way to get closer to the eagles, and to see more of them on sections of the river that are invisible from the road. Group trips and private photo excursions are offered.

Shooting from a moving raft while bobbing up and down on the currents means you’ll need fairly fast shutter speeds. 1/500 is the minimum you’ll be able to get a sharp shot with even if the eagle you’re photographing is holding still while perched in a tree. For any eagles that are active or in flight you’ll need at least 1/1000.  As it’s often the case that the eagle sitting quietly on a branch will quickly become an eagle taking flight as you get closer to it I’d recommend staying at 1/1000 even for photographing perched eagles so you don’t miss out on any great action sequences. I don’t recommend the usual trick of setting the camera to aperture priority and shooting at your widest aperture, as you need to ensure that your shutter speed stays high due to the constant movement of the boat and eagles. Don’t be afraid to ratchet up the ISO if necessary, a grainy photo is better than a blurry or underexposed one.

Bald Eagles In Tree

f/4 at 1/500 seconds, ISO 640
Canon EOS 7D, EF500mm f/4L IS USM at 500mm

Due to the movement of the boat and water it’s a challenge to keep your subject centered in the viewfinder when using a lens over 300mm.  Therefore, I suggest that you rely on the camera’s central focus point and crop your images for better composition in post processing, rather than trying to actively compose the shot by switching focus points. You’ll lose some pixels, but this is better than missing a shot.

An expert rafting guide can also be a huge asset for getting good images. On one private float trip I took down the river with Blue Sky Outfitters my guide, Scott, expertly rotated the raft through 180 degrees to follow an eagle flying up the river with such skill that I literally did not need to pan my camera at all to track the bird in flight. I simply held still and pressed the shutter button.  Quite impressive.

Another challenge while shooting in a raft is that you’ll be quite close to the ground shooting up at eagles in the trees, which is recipe for photos with boring white skies in the background. Seek out eagles perched lower in the trees and ask your guide not to float directly beneath the tree the eagle is perched in. Standing off even 20 feet may reduce the angle you’re shooting at just enough to allow you to use the forested mountains surrounding the river as a background. This type of dark background will cause the white heads of the adults to really stand out in your photos.

Juvenile Bald Eagle

f/4 at 1/1600 seconds, ISO 320
Canon EOS 7D, EF500mm f/4L IS USM at 500mm

Gear

Below is the list of gear I’d recommend bringing on a trip like this.

Camera and Lenses

  • Camera Body – It’s awesome autofocus and fast drive speed make the Canon 7D an ideal choice for this type of trip. You’ll appreciate the autofocus performance when tracking an eagle flying low over the river with a busy background of forest that can steal the focus from the bird in lesser cameras.
  • Super Telephoto lens – The eagles will be far enough away that you’ll want a 200mm lens at a minimum. For frame filling shots from the shore, a 500mm or 600mm prime lens is necessary. My favorite in this category is the Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS USM. This portion of the Skagit River is quite flat allowing use of a long (and hence expensive) lens on a raft trip with minimal risk.  However, you will need to hand hold it, as a tripod won’t work from a boat. Another good option for a raft trip would be a super zoom lens like the Canon 100-400mm f/4-5.6L IS. The amount of flexibility this lens allows, plus it’s smaller size and weight, would make it a better choice than a large prime if you’re in a kayak or taking a raft trip with numerous other people. If you don’t own a long telephoto of your own, renting one is a great option for a trip of this nature. There are many options both on the web and through local camera stores. I’ve been quite pleased with my experiences with Lensrentals.com.
  • Telephoto Extender – For a bit more reach while on shore an extender can be useful.  I use the Canon EF 1.4X II.  I would not recommend using an extender while on a boat, however.
  • Standard Zoom – While the eagles are the main attraction of the area, the snow covered peaks of the Cascade Range rising above the Skagit provides potential for landscape photography. A lens like the Canon 24-105mm f/4 IS USM will work well for these scenes.

NOTE: I used a Canon 7D as my camera which means I was working with a 1.6 crop factor, take this into account if you’re using a full frame sensor. Also, I happen to shoot Canon, but Nikon and others manufacturers will have equivalents to the equipment I describe above.

Other Photo Gear

  • Support – You will need a tripod capable of supporting your large lens when shooting from the shore. I use a Gitzo tripod with a Kirk BH-3 ballhead.
  • Raincovers – As you may have heard, rain is not an uncommon phenomenon in the Pacific Northwest. Be prepared and have a cover for your camera and lens that still allows you to operate it. Optech Rainsleeves and Storm Jackets are both good options at opposite ends of the price spectrum.

Clothing and Packs

  • If you’re shooting from the shore, a standard kit of warm clothing and a rainshell will suffice. You’ll rarely be more than a short walk from your car. A raft trip calls for a more specific gear. Most of the rafts used for the tours are self-bailing inflatables, which means there may be some water on the floor of the boat. Wear waterproof pants and footwear. Note that Goretex isn’t waterproof, it’s breathable. You’ll get wet if you kneel down in a puddle in the boat while wearing it. Instead you’ll want fully waterproof outers. I used and recommend those made by Helly Hansen.
  • Camera Bag – I recommend carrying your gear in a drybag backpack rather than a standard photography pack for a trip like this. My trusty SealLine Boundary 35 drybag has served me well for many years and can hold 2 camera bodies, my 500mm lens, and the rest of my photo gear, plus extra clothing and other essentials with ease.

Rafting Tours

There are numerous tour operators that you can contact about raft trips down the Skagit. As part of the research for this article I took private photo trip with Blue Sky Outfitters, as well as a group trip with a local rafting club. While you can get good images during a group tour, a dedicated trip for photography will allow you more flexibility in approaching the eagle and more time on the river.

I’d like to thank the two guides who took me down the river, Scott Somerville of Blue Sky Outfitters, and Nathan Confer for putting up with me and helping me get some great photographs.

Bald Eagle

f/4 at 1/500 seconds, ISO 640
Canon EOS 7D, EF500mm f/4L IS USM at 500mm
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6 Comments


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    avatar Andrew
    Posted April 5, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    What an incredible shoot…. the contrast of the eagle head against the deciduous trees is just breathtaking. Well done, thanks for sharing


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    avatar Steve
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Tony

    Thanks for the great information! I am temporarily living in Sedro Woolley and will be taking advantage of your excellent tips. I have free access to a boat and will be going on the river too.

    In case you can get up here in mid December, I would love to thank you for your information by offering to have you join me on my brother in laws boat. He fishes the Skagit regularly and knows the river very well.

    Steve


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      avatar Tony
      Posted January 4, 2012 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

      Hi Steve, glad you enjoyed the article. Sorry I didn’t reply sooner but I spent most of December in Australia. How did your trip down the river go? Post a link to your shots, I’d love to check them out.


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    avatar Carol Wall
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Planning to take a boat trip on the Skagit soon. Bought ticket thru Groupon. Is there a Best time in January and February. We live in Oak Harbor. Also realize the availability of the reservation is a key. Sure would like to hear from you.


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    avatar Carol Wall
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    Is there a prefered time in January or February to do the boat ride on the Skagit…to see Eagles. We bought Groupon tickets and need to make reservations soon. Thanks


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      avatar Tony
      Posted January 4, 2012 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

      Carol,

      The number of eagles flucates year-to-year depending on the salmon run and a few other factors, but in general mid-January is usually the peak time. It looks like right now the count this year is lower than last years with about 230 eagles along the section of the river I describe (down from 375 last year at the same time). My advice would be to go in the next two weeks if possible. I haven’t been up to the river yet this year myselft, and that’s what I’ll be doing.

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