Behind the Lens: Bald eagles make fine subjects

A bald eagle takes flight in Lawrence in April 2010.

A bald eagle takes flight in Lawrence in April 2010.

Some 30 years ago I saw my first bald eagle and a golden eagle at the Bowersock Dam, slowly sailing the sky over the river. It was pretty breathtaking.

Since then, every winter other Journal-World photographers and I have been trying to make a good picture of one of nature’s truly magnificent birds. Since early pioneer days, the bald eagle has been a symbol of strength — from the $20 gold piece bearing its image to the paper currency. During the ’50s the birds was nearly wiped out due to the use of the pesticide DDT. But for the last 30 years, the bird has made a great comeback.

Trying to find the elusive birds in my first years at the paper was hard. I first spotted one when I was hidden under a sheet early in the morning near Lecompton. The birds hung around the creek coming from Perry Lake, as fish were plentiful. I’d been using a Nikon 500 f. 4 lens with a D 700, added a 1.4 extender at usual 800 asa or greater, and had spent countless hours driving the area lakes and rivers in the fall and winter looking for a small speck in the distance.

Bowersock Dam is a great place to watch them in winter months. As the rivers and lakes freeze over, it’s one of the only places for them to hunt fish, a primary food for them in winter. Clinton Lake was probably the first site of a nest I remember, as on the south side two birds had set up in an old cottonwood. It still stands, and yet another on the west side can be seen from a distance.

A topper has happened in the last five years as a pair is nesting not four miles from my home. I get to follow them pretty close, going to and from work, but it is not easy to make a drive-up picture. They’re usually building the nest in November and sitting on eggs in January /February. A lot of time is spent just watching and looking for a moment that makes a picture — from carrying in sticks, to building a nest, to the young on the edge of the nest holding their wings out in an attempt at catching the wind for a short lift.

Lately, I’ve discovered a nest on the south side of the Kansas River, just south of the Flamingo in north Lawrence. More pictures are coming.

— Staff photographer Richard Gwin can be reached at 832-6351.


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