In the last few days it was my great pleasure to return to Utajärvi, a small village in the Northern Ostrobothnia region of Finland, to photograph Golden Eagles from a hide in the middle of the forest. I have been to Utajärvi on three previous occasions for the same purpose, it is surely the best location in Finland to photograph these rare and magnificent birds.
The Golden Eagle is one of the best known birds of prey and is present across a large area of the Northern Hemisphere. The global population has been estimated to be approximately a quarter of a million individuals. That does not however make it easy to find! The Golden Eagle has sensibly learned to be cautious around humans and in order to have a reasonable chance to spot one from reasonably close range you need to be in a hide.
On this trip I joined a Golden Eagle photography course organised by Finnature, in association with Olympus, and led by Jari Peltomäki, a well known Finnish professional photographer who is currently an "Olympus visionary" and uses their equipment for his photography.
In order to maximise the chances to see the eagles, the day in the hide starts before 0700. We arrived in the dark in order to be set up and ready to be silent and still during the hours of daylight, waiting and hoping that the eagles would come to visit the area. In order to lure the eagles into range of our cameras some suitable bait (for instance foxes, squirrels or racoon dogs which have met their end in accidents on the local roads) is left for them to find.
The new Finnature hide at Utajärvi (constructed last summer) is larger and more comfortable than the older ones but the most important difference in my opinion is the improved visibility which it offers. It is now possible to have a much wider field of view without having to change your position and that offers greatly increased chances to see all the activity. The eagles tend to approach in stages. Firstly you might see them doing a fly-by overhead, before they settle in the trees at the back of the area for a period of observation, possibly accompanied by some calling.
This period of observation seems to typically last for many minutes, or even tens of minutes, but can also be very brief. One of the challenges of this kind of photography is that while you spend 10 or more hours in the hide, the important action of the day may only last for 10 seconds in total. You have to be ready all the time... and inevitably you sometimes choose the wrong moment to take care of something else (eating, changing batteries, having a toilet break) after concentrating for a prolonged period without getting a reward. All you can do is try to be as ready as possible and as focused as possible for as much of the time as possible. Sooner or later, the eagle may decide that it is safe to come and feed.
This is a very sensitive time, if the eagle notices anything alarming, such as a moving camera lens, then it may decide to leave the area and not return... your day can effectively be over (although you still have to sit in the hide until nightfall). The practice is to remain silent and still until the eagle has started feeding, and then begin shooting. Some cameras have the possibility to shoot completely silently with an electronic shutter, this gives the possibility to aim the camera where you expect the eagle to land and silently capture its arrival without lens movements or disturbing noises.
Once the eagle has landed shooting is also done cautiously, starting with single shots and gauging the reaction over a number of minutes before moving on to longer bursts. The ultimate goal is to encourage the eagle to stay for long enough that there is a chance for a second eagle to arrive. On the occasion shown in the video below, the eagle got spooked before another eagle had a chance to arrive on the scene.
Should you be lucky enough to see it, the most interesting and valuable pictures are likely to come when a number of individuals start squabbling over the available food. Capturing these interactions is extremely challenging, the second eagle can arrive from any direction and as they come together the action can continue in unpredictable ways. The wings of these glorious animals are enormous, the wingspan can be well over 2 metres, and during a scuffle a wing can suddenly stick out to any direction... easily disappearing from the frame.
In trying to capture these interactions, the choice of lens or the choice of focal length, is something to pay particular attention to. The longer the focal length, the more detail you can capture... but the harder it is to keep the birds in the frame. My thoughts for the trip were to use 800mm focal length for eagle portraits and around 400mm for action and interactions... but this plan was undermined by a problem with the weather sealing on my 100-400mm lens. Trying to shoot the interactions with 800mm focal length was something of a challenge.
During the three days I spent with the eagles, I would say that the weather conditions were more favourable than average. Each day had periods where the clouds and the sun were battling for supremacy and this gave some beautifully soft golden light... but unfortunately that light rarely coincided with the best periods of eagle action.
The snow was also an interesting variable with periods of heavier snow as well as moments where tiny individual snow crystals drifted slowly towards the ground as if gravity was turned down to a minimum and would travel horizontally instead of vertically at the slightest hint of a breeze.
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