One of my favourite raptor images

We all have images in our collections, which we are super fond of for a number of different reasons. I have many reasons why the above is one of my all-time favourite images so far in some 20 years of serious bird photography. It depicts a juvenile White-bellied Sea Eagle sitting on a perch in perfect light. I photographed this bird a number of times over a month while I had my hide out at a friend’s 100 acre property.

For me, light is what made this image perfect in the end, not just the bird’s pose and the framing of the scene. The amount of work that went into it is immense, as no image of this caliber just falls into one’s lap. I had to think, plan and execute my plan to get to the point where I pressed the shutter at the time the light was right. And that light lasted barely 3 minutes towards the end of a series of photography sessions I had with a whole bunch of these sea eagles in the winter of 2015 on a friend’s private property near Richmond, NSW. He invited me to do as much photography as I wanted on his land. This was an amazing and generous gesture. I spent around 60 hours in my hide over several days in a month. and I had 3 minutes of those hours where I had the planned subject in the right position and the perfect light. You can instantly see the odds are never in our favour, even when we plan well.

There are a number of things needed for something like the above to be captured in camera. First of all, a photography hide. Unless you photograph ridiculously tame birds in a place where they regularly feed them (eg. Alaska in the USA or Hokkaido in Japan), you will need to conceal yourself inside a hide, as most raptors just do not allow a close approach at the best of times. 150 meters is about as close as you’ll get to most sea eagles on foot in my experience.

I needed to work out where I wanted my perch to be. To make it an aesthetically pleasing set-up, I ended up dragging a massive branch from the swamp to the edge of the water and placed it 20 meters in front of my hide in a position, where I would get the best morning light. This meant that morning light was going to get me the best results. There is a reason for that. First thing in the morning, the birds are hungry after a night’s rest and will be more active and ready to do what I was hoping they would do. That is: eat the free handouts I left there for them. I went to the property every morning for a week before dawn. It was dark and cold, but that is expected in the middle of winter. The ground was covered in frost and I was wearing gumboots to not get my feet wet on the edge of the swamp where I was placing all my tempting morsels for the eagles to come in and start feeding. I spent around 40 minutes out there in total darkness every morning and my feet froze each morning. I swore I’d never do this again if things didn’t work out.

When the morning of photography arrived, I sat in my hide at 5am, well before first light. And first light arrived about 90 minutes later. Then the first sea eagle arrived while it was barely light enough to even shoot a frame or two. The eagles kept arriving over the day, coming in for a free feed, and there was never a squabble among them. Not even the youngsters.

It was one of the most amazing experiences to be so close to such amazing raptors and be able to photograph them up close from my hide.

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