Photographing Bald Eagles along the Hudson

This time last year, the lower Hudson River shores were filled with bald eagles escaping the frozen waters further north. In their wake, photographers and sightseers spent hours watching the graceful birds and shooting the occasional show of eagles fighting over fish.

I wrote much of this last year, at the end of eagle season, after I had been out to the river almost every morning for much of February and March. I figured it would be a guide for this season and I’d publish it around the time the eagles would visit the area.

Well, maybe the extreme cold spell this weekend will do it, but so far the pickings have been extremely slim. There are some bald eagles hanging around near Beacon, NY, outside of the area I covered last year. Yesterday for the first time this year, I photographed an eagle in Verplanck, NY, where I spent many hours and took thousands of pictures a year ago.  So far, it’s nothing like the dozens of eagles you would see every day last winter.

My one 2016 eagle shot...

My one 2016 eagle shot, so far…

So, just in case we still do get lucky and the eagles once again move to this area, I’m publishing this guide now. It focuses on locations along the eastern shore south of the Bear Mountain Bridge. It’s based on my own observations over many days last year and on information from others who have been observing bald eagles for years.

General Observations

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Zeiss Otus 28mm f/1.4: Nice, but Niche

An earlier draft of this article ran to almost 1800 words. It’s always like that with gear that’s actually good but that doesn’t suit me. I go through draft after draft, trying to write away the ambivalence that has little to do with the gear and – almost – everything with me.

But it’s not about me, it’s about the gear. And Zeiss didn’t make this Otus for me, or for people like me.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably interested in this lens. So, here’s the gist:

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Photographing Bald Eagles at the Conowingo Dam

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Once you fall for bird photography, the Conowingo Dam in Maryland beckons. The hydroelectric dam on the Susquehanna River is known to attract dozens of bald eagles in the fall. In their wake, an equal number of photographers and long, fast teles show up for an annual ritual of fishing, photographing and freezing.

The eagles, opportunists that they are, come for the fast food delivered to them courtesy of the Exelon Power Corporation which operates the dam several times a day, in the process stunning the fish that make the trip through the generators and making them easy prey for the big birds.

Like few other places, this predictable ritual allows photographers multiple spray-and-pray runs at fishing eagles and thus increases the chance for the money shot. One hour at Conowingo can deliver more payback than many freezing hours along the Hudson in mid-winter, as I can attest based on personal experience.

The season starts at the end of October and runs through the beginning of December, although there are always some eagles around. The height of the hunt is apparently around the Thanksgiving holiday. On weekends, the crowds of photographers, fishermen and onlookers do get large and parking space limited, but weekdays are manageable.

I was there at the end of October for two days and will return later this week for three days. I will write a detailed guide based on my experiences and talks with local shooters who have photographed here for years. For now, a few quick impressions and images.

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Stumbling into Bird Photography

Even in my early fifties, I sometimes realize how wrong I can be about myself. Which is a good thing, by the way. Keeps life interesting.

Take photographing birds.

It wasn’t for me. Apart from two early morning strolls through some swamp in Florida while attending a conference in the area years ago, I didn’t bother with it. I’m not much of an animal person, let alone a bird person. I never ‘got’ birding.

My early bird photography - Florida in 2003 with a 4-mp Canon 1D

                   My early bird photography – Florida in 2003 with a 4-mp Canon 1D

And while some images of birds can be gorgeous, it just didn’t look like it had much to do with vision. To me, one bird picture looked pretty much like any other bird picture. I could add one to the pile, but why would I?

Other genres of photography always struck me as offering better opportunities to do something unique. That particular angle to view a landscape, the street photograph depicting a scene that will never happen again, a model shoot that you direct and chose the lighting for…

Whereas a picture of a bird was just a picture of a bird.

Another 2003 Florida swamp shot

                                              Another 2003 Florida swamp shot

Even excellent bird images seemed a dime a dozen to me. Sure, it probably took skill, patience and some expensive cool gear, but as something to pursue it didn’t resonate. If you had asked me if I would ever take up bird photography, I would have answered with a resounding ‘no.’

And that would have been wrong.

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Photo Plus Expo 2015: Tidbits from the Show

Wandered the PPE 2015 floor today at the Javitts Center in New York City, together with a multitude of other photography fans including all those bloggers and YouTubers we’ve grown accustomed to.

I’m getting a bit tired of gear news, as you might have noticed from the lack of it on this site recently, so I only focused on the stuff I’m personally interested in or intrigued by.

Before I share the stuff I can share, I must add that despite my sense that we’ve reached a plateau in the market, I’m still excited about some of the stuff that’s likely coming over the transom. But that was all eluded to off the record, so no specifics yet.

Here are the tidbits I can share:

  • the Zeiss Otus 28mm f/1.4 will tentatively be priced at around EUR4500, including VAT;
  • Zeiss will add a new Batis to its line in the spring of next year, no word yet on its focal length;
  • production of the Batis 25mm f/2 is expected to finally catch up with demand by the spring.

Moving to Olympus:

The upcoming 300mm f/4, which has a lot of people excited because it’s a 600mm f/4 equivalent in full frame, will apparently boost features that no other lens has. The rep refused to tell me anything more, leaving me as befuddled as you are what they could possibly be doing with this lens. All I hope for is that the OM-D E-M1 successor will be a camera to match the needs of the bird and wildlife photographers who would buy this lens.

To Sony:

The new Sony RX1R II is one sweet little camera. I’m not a fan of rangefinder style viewfinders, but the little pop-up EVF on the left side of the camera is a nice feature and altogether it’s one sweet package. A bit expensive. Also, the models they had on display were pre-production, so no sample images could be taken.

To Leica:

I had not yet made acquaintance with the Leica Q, the closest competitor to the above fixed-focal-lens Sony. In short, it’s another beautiful camera with a great lens, delivering crisp images. I prefer the Leica’s 28mm over the Sony’s 35mm and if it wasn’t for the price, the Q would be mine. I fear it never will be, though.

Then there’s the Leica SL, the new kid on the block. The camera by itself is large for a mirrorless camera, but not uncomfortably so. I found the grip to both look good and feel good, so while my initial impression was that form had trumped function, after holding it, I think the two mesh perfectly.

I can’t say the same thing about the first lens produced in this line, the 24-90mm f/2.8-4. It delivers great quality, but it’s one large piece of gear.

And handling the camera reminded me of stepping into an Ferrari Enzo at a car show some years ago. While I had driven cars since my late teens, that Ferrari left me dumbfounded with its Formula 1-style controls. Likewise, while I’ve handled cameras for even longer than I’ve driven cars, the SL left me utterly confused about how to change basic settings. Usually, I pick up a camera and can shoot with it at different settings. Here, a friendly Leica rep had to help me out every step of the way. In this case, form does seem to trump function.

Leica SL & 24-90mm Lens at 90mm f/4, 1/80s, ISO 2500, heavy crop, no other adjustments

I’m still not sure who Leica built the SL for. Their media materials emphasize it as a professional camera, which would take aim at the top Canon and Nikon bodies, but the Leica lenses aren’t there to make for a compelling case for a pro who usually would pick up a Canon 1D X and a few f/2.8 lenses. And while the SL shoots at 11 frames per second, that goes down to 7 fps if you use continuous focus. In short, while I think Canon and Nikon have a lot to worry about, this Leica ain’t it.

Punters say Leica is taking on the Sony A7-series, but if they did that, why would they build a so much better body than the A7-series but not offer a higher-megapixel sensor? And why price it at more than double of the most expensive Sony A7-series?

I’m sure true Leica aficionados with a range of R-lenses in the closet will like this camera, but I have no clue who else is going to buy this at $7,500. Hopefully Leica knows.

Finally, B&H is running a host of show specials. Some are worth real money, so check it out.

The show is on for two more days.