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Photographers offers hints for capturing iconic birds of prey on camera

Photographers offers hints for capturing iconic birds of prey on camera

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Three photographers will give you the “eagle eye” about capturing the national bird on camera at a talk this weekend in LeClaire.

Photographer Burt Gearhart, along with Mike Fitzgerald and Larry Williams, will discuss the best places to see and photograph bald eagles during the free program at 2 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 19, at the LeClaire Civic Center, 127 S. Cody Road.

The three have photographed eagles together for about 10 years, Gearhart said.

“A lot of people around here don’t understand the national treasure we have up and down the Mississippi River and being able to see the eagles," he said. “It’s our nation’s symbol. It’s our nation’s bird. Eagles are not just around all the time, they’re not commonplace.

“We only get to see them in the wintertime, and we get to see them because they have to move south for food. We’re fortunate," he said.

Eagles like the easiest food source they can find, and congregate near locks and dams because the water below the locks generally doesn’t freeze. When waters freeze north of the Quad-Cities, the birds can’t fish, so they move south.

“We have absolutely one of the best opportunities in the United States to photograph bald eagles here in LeClaire,” Gearhart said of the Quad-City region. “We don’t have the highest counts. But in terms of the quality of being able to see them and the experience, it’s untouched.”

Eagle watchers can get out of their cars and walk about 50 feet and get on the boardwalk at Lock and Dam 14. “You pull into the parking lot near the Corps of Engineers office, and there is a boardwalk.”

“The photography opportunity is on the boardwalk at the service lock,” he said. “The eagles are fishing 50 feet in front of you. Lock and Dam 14 is absolutely unique for the access.”

When eagles catch fish, they often fly over spectators to land in trees in the parking lot.

“You’re standing there looking up,” Gearhart said. “You can photograph them as they’re eating and get very close up.”

He said telephoto lenses create an optical illusion that makes photos appear as though the picture was taken at eye level.

“It’s just the compression of the lens,” Gearhart explains.

People come from all over the United States, and sometimes from other countries, to see the birds, Gearhart said. “On a weekend, it’s an absolute zoo” at Lock and Dam 14.

“If you don’t get to the boardwalk where you can watch them fish early and get a place, you’re not going to get on the boardwalk,” he said.

The presentation will begin with information about the birds of prey — how to tell the difference between adults and young eagles, what they eat, and where they go in the summer time.

Additionally, the three photographers will discuss tips for getting the best photos. At Lock and Dam 14 in LeClaire, for example, the Mississippi River flows east and west. “You can’t really do much photography there until after lunch because the sun’s in your eyes,” Gearhart said. But in the mornings, photographers can go to Lock and Dam 15 in Davenport or Concord Street or Credit Island, Davenport.

If you want numbers, but not proximity, you can head to Lock and Dam 13 in Clinton. “You can see the trees almost covered with white from the eagles’ heads, there are so many of them.”

Another spot for volume is Burlington, Iowa, Gearhart said.

Those attending the talk also will get tips about other viewing areas, cameras — from high-end models to cell phones — lenses, and how to dress for the weather. “We’ll show slides of eagle pictures we’ve taken at these various places," he said.

Sometimes, a struggle will break out between two birds. “Rather than catch their own fish, they’ll go out and try to steal a fish from the one that’s got it. They’ll collide and drop the fish.”

 

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Film critic/reporter since 1985 at Quad-City Times. Society of Professional Journalists, Broadcast Film Critics Association and Alliance of Women Film Journalists member. Member of St. Mark Lutheran Church.

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