I've gone to the Mississippi River Lock and Dam #11 in Dubuque, Iowa many times in search of Bald Eagles. This winter season I never saw more than two at the same time. In previous years I sometimes counted close to 100 of these majestic birds. The river does not freeze over below the dams during the winter, and the Bald Eagles come usually in large numbers from the north to hunt for fish. A ranger told me that they are much further south this year.
Last Saturday I drove down to Le Claire, Iowa to check out dam #14. While here in Dubuque the river was still frozen for the most part, 90 miles (145 km) south the Mississippi was cleared from ice. And yes, there were Bald Eagles sitting in the trees near the lock and dam. Other photographers had already lined up their gear and were waiting for action on the river.
It was the first attempt to shoot birds in flight with my relatively new Sigma 50-500 / f4-6.3 APO DG lens. Also known as the "BIGMA", this lens is heavy and I started out shooting from the tripod with a ballhead mounted on top. My lens does not have image stabilization (although SIGMA has just announced a new version which includes this feature). That's why I thought working with the tripod support would give me better results. I take most of my images with a tripod anyway, but in this case it did not really work for me. I always had the feeling that I could not follow the movement of the eagles fast enough. Most of the other guys that used their tripods had their long lenses attached to a gimbal head instead of a ballhead and that seemed to work for them. I currently don't own a gimbal head, so I took the camera off the tripod and started shooting handheld. I tried to practice proper panning technique, as I had learned from a video clip that famous wildlife photographer Moose Peterson has on his website (check out the link in the sidebar). My results are still far from being perfect yet, but I got more worthwhile photos after changing to handheld shooting.
It was such a thrill to watch the Bald Eagles. I went back to dam #14 with my wife, Joan, on Sunday and the light was even better than the day before. More practice, more keepers, another great experience.