Bald Eagle

Don't Forget to Look UP When Photographing Birds by Todd Henson

Great Blue Heron flying away from the scene of the crime.

WARNING: This topic, though light-hearted, may not appeal to all viewers. But it does teach an important lesson if you photograph birds in the wild.

I love photographing birds, especially when I’m able to document birds in flight. But there is at least one potential downside to this activity, something that could ruin your day if you’re not careful to avoid it.

A Great Blue Heron. Such a beautiful bird. And yet... see the photo further below.

What am I talking about? Why is the title of this post, “Don’t Forget to Look UP When Photographing Birds?” Well, birds often defecate while in flight, or just before taking flight. And it’s not fun to be on the receiving end of this.

I feel sorry for any poor paddler in the river below this Great Blue Heron! Click on the image for a larger view. Go ahead, I dare you!

Thankfully, I’ve never been on the receiving end of a Great Blue Heron or Bald Eagle. As you can see in these photographs they can make quite a mess. But I have been hit by a Canada Goose flying overhead. It was so low I almost felt the air from its wings. Geese mostly eat plant matter so what I was hit with was fairly solid and didn’t make much of a mess. But birds that eat fish, animals or insects aren’t as easy to clean up from. I have been hit by a smaller song bird. Not fun.

So what’s my advice?

Don't stand too close when looking up at Bald Eagles! Not sure what you're seeing? Click on the image to see a larger version.

  • Always be aware of your surroundings. Try to determine the birds typical flight path, or places they commonly perch. You can’t plan everything, there’s always a chance one will fly over you, but being aware of where they may fly or perch at least gives you a chance of avoiding any bad encounters. If you see one heading your way just be aware of what might happen and be ready to move. The odds should be fairly low, but it does happen.
  • Learn the behavior of the birds you’re observing. Many birds, such as Bald Eagles and Osprey, will often defecate before taking flight. So be careful if you are observing a perched bird from down below, especially if it begins to left its tail feathers. They have more range than you might think!
  • Always wear a hat! Your clothes may still be a mess but at least it will help protect your head. When the goose let loose it hit my hat and backpack and mostly bounced off. No real harm done. When I was hit by the song bird I wasn’t wearing a hat. I had to clean off my hair, the side of my face, and my sunglasses. And all this in the middle of a busy city. Not my best day, but hey, “it” happens!
  • Always carry a towel or cloth of some kind with you, just in case you might need it. It’s not fun cleaning up this kind of mess without a cloth, trust me!
  • Bring some of that portable hand wash with you. Wiping it off is one thing, but getting yourself clean is nice, too.

Well, that’s it for today. I apologize for the somewhat unappealing topic, but it does happen and it’s best to plan ahead in case it ever happens to you. And worst case, if it does happen, you’ll have quite the story you never want to tell your friends about! 😀

Have fun out there. Enjoy photographing nature. And always remember: Look UP when photographing birds!!!

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Conowingo Bald Eagles 2015 by Todd Henson

Bald Eagle searching for fish in the Susquehanna River

Every year my brother and I try to make our way to Conowingo Dam in the November to December timeframe. Conowingo Dam is on the Susquehanna River in Maryland, close to the border with Pennsylvania. Route 1 crosses over top the dam. Large numbers of bald eagles congregate here each year to fish in the river. The most active times are when the dam turbines are on. This stirs up the water and stuns some of the fish making them easier meals for the eagles. In addition to the eagles there are cormorants, various gulls, great blue herons, and black vultures. Conowingo has become a very popular site this time of year, so if you go arrive early to assure you find a parking space and viewing location.

Bald Eagle searching for fish in the Susquehanna River

Personally, I’ve found Conowingo to be very hit or miss the times I’ve been there. Several times we’ve arrived by 6:30 or 7 in the morning only to find the entire river completely covered in a thick layer of fog that didn’t clear up till around 10:30. That’s a lot of time standing around with very little to photograph. Sometimes the fog will begin to clear only to fog over again. One day I’ll change to a shorter focal length lens and make some images of the fisherman or other photographers in the fog.

Bald Eagle at an interesting angle as it scans the river below

Below is a sequence of images of a young adult bald eagle catching a fish. I say young adult because its dark feathers are still coming in, notice the occasional white patches. It’s fascinating to watch as they approach the water, spread their wings to slow their descent, reach their talons forward then plunge them into the water and, hopefully, grab hold of a good sized fish. Often they come up empty. When they do catch a fish they are sometimes pursued by other eagles eager to steal their catch.

This year a juvenile bald eagle came very close to us, allowing a great view. The juveniles are mottled brown and white, not yet having white head or tail feathers. I’ve read that juveniles can actually be larger than the adults, and eagles are large birds. Below are two photos of the juvenile as it was flying over the river, veering towards the water having its sights on a fish just under the surface. Further below is a longer sequence of the juvenile catching the fish and flying off. Unfortunately, I didn’t capture the actual moment it brought the fish out of the water, but sometimes you just have to take what you can get.

Juvenile Bald Eagle veering towards the river, it's eye focused on a fish just under the surface

Juvenile Bald Eagle angling down towards a fish in the river

Below is a sequence of the juvenile bald eagle catching a fish and flying away with it. Click on an image to cycle through them all.