Bald Eagles — Guaranteed!

Winter at Tule Lake Refuge
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Hunched in a primitive photography blind before sunrise, 70 feet from a roost tree, I aim a camera with a 200500 mm zoom lens at an assembly of as many as 15 bald eagles. It's snowing hard, blowing into the blind, and every few minutes I need to turn the lens and dump snow out of the mammoth lens hood. It's about eleven degrees and although well layered, I begin to shiver, prompting me to put photography on hold and drink hot tea from a thermos I wisely packed in. It took almost two hours to climb the steep, snow-covered mile up to Sheepy Ridge in the Tule Lake Wildlife Refuge in northeastern California. But when you're into wildlife photography and you've lived most of your life on the East Coast and you've never seen a bald eagle in the wild, you're motivated.

So I packed my chains for the car, rented the camera lens for a week, bought a ton of film, and ventured to see the largest concentration of wintering bald eagles in the lower 48 states. Eagles keep returning to Tule Lake because it's a funnel for huge numbers of waterfowl on the Pacific Flyway. Many waterfowl die from natural and human-made causes, and the eagles take advantage of the carnage. They prefer fish but will gladly accept an easier meal (a scavenging behavior that caused Ben Franklin to object to making the bald eagle our national symbol — he recommended the wild turkey). So every year, between December and March, some 500 bald eagles journey from Alaska to the warmer and abundant feeding grounds of northeastern California and south-central Oregon.

I've been in the blind for about four hours. It's basically a rock structure covered with brush and canvas and, judging from its condition, has also served as the local supply depot for every rodent in the area. I used every ounce of awareness I had in planning this photo expedition, chanting"don't forget the film" as my mantra as I left that morning in the dark fog and snow. Other mantras involved remembering other photo gear, and stuff to keep me warm like a thermos of tea.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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