Monday, January 23, 2006

Chasing Eagles

I finally got an Eagle! Lots of them. Well, pictures anyway and I am talking about the bird -- not the lucky shot. On Friday we went on an Eagle viewing tour on the Skagit River with Amir, David and Tomasz. It was a great practice run for Egypt and a really cool trip in its own right.

While we were driving up to Skagit county the weather was not looking good. It rained much of the way up and it was very gray. As we got closer, the skies cleared a bit and some blue would occasionally poke through the clouds but there was also occasional low fog in the valley and clouds on the mountains. We were getting pretty close to the snow line so the hills around the river were blanketed in snow. It was really quite striking at times.

We set off on a rubber raft with a reasonably insane amount of camera gear -- no one was shooting with less than a 300mm lens with a 1.4 extender on it and Amir had his 500mm lens decked out in camoflage. We were bundled up in lots of layers and then life jackets on. Each time we got out of the boat to try to get closer to some birds it felt like we were some Navy Seal group storming a beach -- taking turns advancing and firing on our targets.

The trip was about four hours long and the weather generally cooperated though it did rain from time to time. The eagle count was down from previous weeks because the river was so high that the salmon carcasses that they've been feasting on were underwater so some of them had left but we still saw probably 30 of them. The tough part isn't seeing them, though, it is getting a good shot. With all of the gray skies the contrast was pretty bad much of the time and even when you had a reasonable background, you were still a pretty good distance away shooting with a very long lens in relatively low light in a boat. On top of that, I was shooting with a Canon 1D Mark II which I am not too familiar with but I didn't want to risk my 20D in the rain just before we left for Egypt.

We all took a lot of shots though. I zipped through my 4 gigs of memory cards in about 90 minutes and had to borrow another 4 gigs from David. It was largely a fire and pray kind of day but I figured with over 800 shots, something good would be in there. It took another few hours just to make the first triage pass and in doing so, I cut the list from 820 shots to about 120 and I've only had a chance to really process a few of them but you can see the results below. I'll probably post more later once I've had a chance to process the raw files.

It was a really fun trip though and I definitely learned a few things that should come in handy over the next couple of weeks. The first being that I needed more memory cards - that has been fixed. The second is that image stabilization is really helpful so I picked up the Canon 24-105 f/4.0 IS lens yesterday for the trip. It will be my main walking around lens and it is both lighter, longer and more stable than the 24-70 f/2.8. The IS should more than make up for the loss of a stop.

Probably the only eagles I'll be seeing this year :)

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