In the Midst of Eagles

When I lived in northern Utah I would hear a lot of stories from acquaintances about remarkable wildlife locations.  I have many friends who are nature photographers, and they have families and friends – and this web of people produced numerous possible locations for great wildlife photography: some were myths, but some were jewels.  Farmington Bay Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in Farmington, Utah was one of those jewels.  The name had been brought to my attention a few times before because it hosted a mid-winter eagle day, and of course, just the name made that very intriguing.  After chasing images at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge (MBR) and seeing only occasional bald eagles (It is about 40 miles north of Farmington Bay WMA) I didn’t put much stock in the rumors.  I had been to Antelope Island State Park, west of Ogden, and other Wasatch Front Range locations and felt I knew the area pretty well.

On a frigid morning in mid-February 2008 I closed my photography studio for the day and headed south from Providence, Utah to see what Farmington Bay WMA was all about.  I had a map printed out with instructions to guide me there, as the roads were unfamiliar in this area between Salt Lake City and Ogden.  As I approached Farmington Bay WMA the area cottonwoods were covered in frost, a low mist drifted across the road, and occasional bald eagles were perched in the uppermost branches.  I wasn’t surprised by the eagles I saw, I had seen them for years along Willard Bay, out at Bear River, and at other locations near the Great Salt Lake.  The dirt entry road passes through the refuge’s management buildings and sheds, and then bends right before turning directly south.  At that corner there is a small hill with a parking lot on top and a couple of picnic tables.  This morning mist was just beginning to burn off when I drove to the top, parked, and stepped outside my vehicle binoculars in hand.  I was stunned.

Three bald eagles taking a morning break.

Three bald eagles taking a morning break.

From the top of that small hill I scanned in a 360 degree circle and counted 172 bald eagles.  Some were perched in trees near the management buildings, many were standing along the edges of the nearly frozen ponds on the east side of the road, many others were standing in fields on the west side – but what was even more startling were the numbers of bald eagles flying.  They criss-crossed the refuge, at different elevations, sometimes performing aerial acrobatics with other eagles, sometimes wrestling over caught fish.  From that perch I saw northern harriers hunting along the road, kestrels, ducks and geese in the ponds, and swans in a pond closer to the buildings.  Within a minute or two I was on the cell phone calling distant friends and telling them it was time to make a winter trip to Utah.

Bald Eagles flying over Farmington Bay WMA.

Bald Eagles flying over Farmington Bay WMA.

Bald eagles are drawn south to Farmington Bay WMA not to just by the brutal winters farther north in Alaska and Canada, but by the food.  The refuge is a series of long, fresh water ponds with interlocking flow gates to control water depth.  Those ponds are home to tons of carp, maybe hundreds of tons in each pond.  Each winter at least one of those ponds is poisoned to kill the carp, and a great feast begins in the dead of winter, feeding the eagles and thousands of other birds until they begin their springtime migration back north.

Since that first trip Farmington Bay has become a personal favorite wildlife location for me.  Day after day I would make the 65 mile drive south in the early morning dark to reach the refuge, and my preferred shooting position, before the first rays of light began to spray over the horizon, lightening the sky above the Wasatch Front mountains.

Diving towards other eagles and fish.

Diving towards other eagles and fish.

While known to many Utah locals for decades, Farmington Bay has recently become a national destination for wildlife photographers.  Social networking sites that favor photography, like Facebook and Flicker, and some pay sites like Naturescapes – have been flooded with fantastic images of bald eagles photographed at Farmington Bay.  And with those great images has come an influx of photographers.  The narrow dirt road that divides the ponds has become crowded with vehicles on good weather days in February, everyone hoping to shoot that iconic bald eagle image that is so difficult to find in 49 out of 50 states.  They come with video cameras, point-and-shoots, and wildlife telephotos – some shoot from their vehicles while others can’t help themselves and are overtaken by the excitement of so much raptor activity that they have to get that extra ten feet closer by exiting their vehicles – and giving up their best blind.

Bald Eagle fly-by, or maybe a float-by, at Farmington Bay WMA.

Bald Eagle fly-by, or maybe a float-by, at Farmington Bay WMA.

Like in Yellowstone, some photographer regulars take an ownership position in the refuge and seem unable to go about their business without tromping on the feet of others.  This manifests itself in verbal demands about parking along the road and in those who exit their vehicles.  I’ve never seen a visitor with a short or medium telephoto lens ever telling someone with a long lens what to do, or where to stand, or how to act.  I’m ashamed that those with big glass feel enabled in ordering others to change their behavior – as if the lens grants them some authority in the field.  I guess they have forgotten where they started, and the lenses they started with – or maybe they have forgotten the thrill of being in a place like Farmington Bay WMA for the first time.  When others respond to that amazing thrill, there always seems to be a guy with a long telephoto lens to bring him back to earth with a series of orders or mocking accusations, like “your scaring all the birds away.”  Whether true or not, there is a learning curve that all are allowed to follow.

A bald eagle flaring and going to full flaps for a landing.

A bald eagle flaring and going to full flaps for a landing.

In February 2009 my wife and I traveled from California (where I had moved to from northern Utah) back to northern Utah to see family and shoot the eagles.  Long before dawn we had parked and prepared to wait out the arrival of the eagles.  First one vehicle, then another parked near us.  Only a few minutes later I had a guy knocking on my window, in the pre-dawn darkness, aggressively telling me to stay in my vehicle and not scare the eagles.  I guess he thought my new California license plate was a badge of ignorance and warranted a warning.  The discussion that followed wasn’t pleasant, as I reminded him that he was the one out of his vehicle, making far too much noise, and that I would follow any style of photography that I deemed necessary.  The muscles in my jaw tightened, and remained tight.

Another close bald eagle fly-by.

Another close bald eagle fly-by.

Thousands of images later, as the morning action faded, a vehicle drove up and parked.  That man was clearly overcome with excitement at seeing all the bald eagles doing fly-bys and exited his vehicle and began to shoot over the hood.  While not ideal tactics, it was acceptable given the lateness of the morning, the number of parked vehicles blocking closer access, and more than expected from a first time visitor.  He had been shooting for only a few seconds when the man that had approached me, approached him – berating him loudly for exiting his vehicle.  This man’s euphoric moment of nature’s beauty was destroyed.  I left my vehicle and told the new guy to stand his ground, continue to shoot, and ignore the troublemaker.  This time I wasn’t so charitable to this guy, pointing out that he wasn’t a warden, a cop, or a ranger – and the noise and commotion he was causing was far more than the guy shooting over his car’s hood.  After going back-and-forth for a minute he returned to his truck and with two others began commenting loudly in my direction.  Normally, I could walk away from stuff like that, just chalking it up to folks having a bad day – but this was the second time he had accosted someone.  I got out of my vehicle and walked back to the three of them and said “Do any of you stooges have something you’d like to say to me?”  They stood silently, suddenly drained of their energy, not a word coming from them, and after a few moments of waiting I returned to my vehicle, grateful I hadn’t got beaten up.

I guess I relate that story because nothing gives one person the right to tell another what to do, or how to act, where to stand, or how excited to be.  When I’m leading photo safaris one of the truths I try to teach people is that photography is an individual art, not to be restricted by others, and their expression is as valuable as any others.  No amount of expensive camera equipment or finely matched khaki clothing gives another photographer the right to impede you in taking your images, or should create some kind of hierarchy in your mind that makes you less equal to them.   That attitude is rampant in the field, especially when groups of photographers form.  It reminds me of the tribal attitudes on display by local surfers in the movie “Point Break”.

A bald eagle floats in as a northern harrier hunts in the background.

A bald eagle floats in as a northern harrier hunts in the background.

Lots of amateur photographers, unskilled in the art of wildlife photography but wanting to be part of the culture, own big telephoto lenses and pass themselves off as professionals.  They seem to take great pleasure in telling others how to shoot, where to stand, when they can talk, etc.  No one without the proper authority (like a Ranger) gets to tell you anything in regards to your photography, not me, not anyone.  If a new photographer approaches a mule deer too closely and pushes the animal back, then they learned a lesson that a dozen drive-by pseudo rangers, screaming at them to back up, will never teach them.  Only in the most dangerous moments will I speak to folks not on my safaris.  They have the right to learn like I did … by experience.

It’s the one-on-one wildlife experiences that teach us animal craft, photo craft, and the amazing blessing we have to be wildlife photographers and participate in this art form.  I’ve lost many photo encounters to folks unskilled in the dual arts of animal craft and photo craft – but I’ve, no doubt, ruined experiences for others when I was learning.  I’ve had many bears run off when the giant tour bus grinds to a halt in Yellowstone and disgorges 60 excited visitors – it’s just part of the learning experience.  It’s their park as much as it is mine – just load up and move on.

Searching for fish at Farmington Bay WMA.

Searching for fish at Farmington Bay WMA.

OK, off the soap box.  Alongside the visiting bald eagles other resident raptors and owls hunt the marsh at Farmington Bay.  Two of my favorites are the barn owls and the northern harriers.  As I mentioned before, the winter of 2008 was particularly harsh.  It was so cold at night that voles were unable to break through the frozen snow and ice – and thus the barn owls that hunt them in the dark of night were starving.  After some weeks of this the barn owls began to hunt during the day when the voles were more active and above the snow and ice.

A barn owl floats through cattails at it hunts voles on a frigid day at Farmington.

A barn owl floats through cattails at it hunts voles on a frigid day at Farmington.

There is a parking lot at the end of the refuge road with a marsh on the north side of it.  It was so cold that getting out of the car was immediately numbing, but in order to pan with the owls I needed a bigger range of motion than shooting out the window would allow.  One barn owl after another flew southbound over the marsh, flying right at me and then veering east or west when they got to the gravel parking lot.  The males were very light in color, almost pure white – while the females had more brown on them with darker brown spots.  These owls have a peculiar flight pattern that makes them rise and fall amid smooth wing beats, occasionally diving into the cattails in closer pursuit of a vole.

Another evening light Barn Owl fly-by.

Another evening light Barn Owl fly-by.

Hovering Barn Owl at Farmington Bay WMA.

Hovering Barn Owl at Farmington Bay WMA.

For an hour this parade of hunting barn owls continued until the sun descended beneath a horizon line of clouds.  While I’ve shot barn owls frequently, I’ve never experienced this type of hunting behavior over such a sustained amount of time, in daylight, so close by.  Like the guy shooting bald eagles for the first time, it was a moment of prolonged awe for me at nature’s beauty.

A barn owl fly-by in the last seconds of light at Farmington Bay.

A barn owl fly-by in the last seconds of light at Farmington Bay.

The northern harrier is another beautiful raptor that calls Farmington Bay home.  The hawks seem to taunt photographers to shoot them as they hunt down the marshy sides of the main road, banking away only when you stop your vehicle and roll the window down.  From 10 yards away they move out to a maddening 30 yards away in just a brief second of flight.  These hunters are active all day long, and if you park in a good spot, one will be by within minutes.  On one windy day I was able to shoot out the window with my 500mm lens while another person steered my vehicle.  The images I captured are among my favorites because both the flight of the bird and the wind in the cattails make the motion seem mystical.

A northern harrier hunting near the road in high winds.

A northern harrier hunting near the road in high winds.

Female Northern Harrier hunts muskrats in the canal.

Female Northern Harrier hunts muskrats in the canal.

Many other birds and animals call these marshes home.  Striped skunks, short-tailed weasels, red fox, short-eared owls, American Kestrels, muskrats, ring-necked pheasants, rough-legged hawks, great blue herons, and numerous ducks, geese, and swans are all possible subjects.  I’ve shot songbirds, gulls feeding on fish, herons hunting in the grass, and Sandhill cranes.

An American Kestrel finishing off a vole at Farmington Bay WMA.

An American Kestrel finishing off a vole at Farmington Bay WMA.

My Utah raptor safari has become one of my favorites; it includes shooting in two other great locations besides Farmington Bay – Antelope Island State Park and Bear River MBR.  Except in the worst weather there is never a bad day on this safari, no matter how active or inactive the eagles are.  These other locations offer their own buffet of wildlife species.  Antelope Island is probably the most diverse, with big-game species like mule deer, bison, and pronghorn antelope.  I’ve photographed coyotes, porcupines, chukars, and great horned owls on the island as well.  Rotating through these three locations makes each day a photographic adventure.

Porcupine on Antelope Island State Park.

Porcupine on Antelope Island State Park.

American Kestrel and vole at Antelope Island State Park.

American Kestrel and vole at Antelope Island State Park.

Chukars in the rocks near the Antelope Island Visitor's Center.

Chukars in the rocks near the Antelope Island Visitor’s Center.

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About brentrpaull

Professional Photographer
This entry was posted in Photo Safaris, Stories from the Field, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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