Monday, 21 July 2014

Tom Langlands – White-tailed eagles

Photographing white-tailed eagles in their natural habitat on Mull proved to be one of the more challenging wildlife photo shoots that I have undertaken. The only way to get the images I wanted was from a boat and I’m not a great seafarer. So it was with great trepidation that I booked two trips with Mull Charters and bought a packet of travel sickness pills. Both proved excellent value for money!

My biggest concern was choosing the right lens. I had no idea how far away the birds would be. Martin and his son Alex who run Mull Charters were able to give some good guidance before we sailed. I opted for a fixed focal length lens of 300mm and two travel sickness pills.

It was a bright morning and conditions were calm as we left Ulva Ferry point and headed down the coastline to some high cliffs where a pair of eagles was nesting. As we moved away from land the sea was no longer quite as calm and I spent much of the 30-minute sail concentrating on the horizon. Once in position, one of the eagles could clearly be seen sitting on the top of the distant cliffs. Alex threw out pieces of bread that brought seagulls and even a bonxie around the boat. The resultant feeding frenzy attracted the eagle and it was soon off its perch and majestically winging its way to us.

The first thing that struck me was its size. With a wingspan of around 2 metres it is a seriously big bird. Martin threw a large mackerel into the water and the eagle took its time circling the boat before starting its descent – a medium paced glide that seemed to pick up speed as it streaked along the surface of the water before grabbing its ‘prey’ and immediately heading back to the nest. It was all over in a flash. It would be around twenty minutes before it returned and it would only do this two or three times. Reviewing images and histograms after each pass of the eagle was important in order to consider exposure adjustments.

When photographing birds in flight I set the exposure for the whole scene and then compensate by over or underexposing depending upon where the bird goes. Sometimes they are high in the sky against a bright background and the next moment they are flying across the face of dark cliffs and seconds later over the top of sparkling water. The result is I find I am continuously adjusting my exposure as I track the bird. Time of day is also important. If the sun is high the underside of the bird tends to be in the shade. Trying to find ways to avoid dark underbellies is tricky.

My second trip to the eagles was in good evening light. With a lower sun it was easier to get a more even light top and bottom of the birds. Low sun also highlights the edge detail in the feathers and brings the texture to life. We visited two separate sites and although the birds performed well there was a different set of challenges. Despite using bait that was clearly too large for the seagulls to eat, it didn’t stop them grabbing it, flying off some distance and then dropping it. The sea eagle then swooped much further away than planned and there was no time to change lenses. It was an occasion where a zoom may have been the answer. Also, as the sun dropped the light levels were continually in a state of flux and the hardest part was ensuring that the bright white tail feathers didn’t get burned out. The other problem for me was that the sea was quite rough. It becomes much more noticeable on a boat after the engine has stopped and trying to focus through a zoom lens on a moving target from a boat that is bobbing about is both difficult and seriously nausea inducing.

For a first attempt I was reasonably pleased with the results but it is definitely an experience to be repeated. Even without a camera it is an amazing experience to witness the success of the white-tailed eagle reintroduction programme and to watch our largest bird back in the skies again.

Tom Langlands

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