My last eagle trip is over. The long flight from Alaska has returned me to Vegas where I’m getting ready for NAB followed by a weekend of fun from the other side of my life – auto racing.
I wanted to share one last post about the eagle trip. I had an epiphany of sorts in Alaska. I noticed I was using the phrase “I learned” more often than usual. Then it hit me. The best way to learn something is to teach it or share it. Despite the fact that this was my 11th trip to photograph eagles, I still found myself learning more and more about the eagles and eagle photography. I learned more about myself too. In fact, I learned so much I outright surprised myself. If an old dog like me can learn a new trick, just think what that means for the rest of you.
I was out on one of the many sandbars we call beaches while we’re up here. The group I was leading was surrounded by eagles. I looked at their happy faces and realized this was just another day at the office for me. I’ve been very lucky to travel to these places and experience moments that most people would never imagine possible. And I’ve done this on a fairly routines basis. The wild notion that it’s just normal for half a dozen bald eagles to surround a group of excited photographers sitting on the ground was a bit mind-blowing.
Later that day I wanted to walk the beach one last time. This time, by myself. I left the group in the hands of my capable co-leader Robert O’Toole and headed out for a quick 20-minute stroll down to the end of this particular skinny stretch of land. I took in the smell of the sea-water and the fresh Alaska air. I enjoyed the rocks and sand giving way underneath my feet as I trudged up the hill where the tall grasses surround many eagle perches. I listened to my favorite sounds up here – the sound of the surf and the call of the eagles. It wasn’t sad. I thought it might be. But I am content. I’ve had my time here. It was good to get a few minutes alone. Because it helped me realize that my decision to slow down, and rest was a good one. But the walk down the beach and up the hill led to one more notable experience.
I rounded a corner and found an old friend from last year’s trip. Not a human mind you, but an eagle I’ve decided to call Patch. I call him Patch because he’s only got one good eye. He sat on a perch and I walked right up to him. I know he recognizes me. I find a rotting fish on the sand and push it his way. He slowly walks up to it and grabs it in his beak and squawks a little as if to say thanks. I spent more time than I planned with Patch. I photographed him for about 20 minutes. I photographed him almost every day of this trip. I had even already photographed him earlier in the day. He’s one of the tamest eagles I’ve ever met. I think it’s because he’s simply not afraid of anything. He’s a young bird and gone through so much that nothing phases him. Besides, I think he likes the attention. With nobody around I feel emboldened to talk to him. I thanked him for being such a regal subject and promised to make him famous. I swear he cocked his head at me as if I am crazy. He continued to eat as I waived goodbye and returned to the group. I know it will be my last time visiting Patch but if something happened and I changed my mind, I know where to find him. He claims this particular beach as his own. He has a rough life ahead of him. At about two years old he’s already missing an eye. But somehow I think Patch will do just fine. He’s patient.
Patience is something you have to learn to be a good eagle and a good eagle photographer. It’s something you have to learn to be a good human. For all the years I’ve come here I’ve learned that patience is the most important tool in my bag. Not the latest camera or fastest lens. Patience. Nature or wildlife photography demands it. Period.
So the big news is that I learned as much as I taught on this trip. The idea that I can still learn at my old age, and still commune in places like this has taught me one more thing – to be grateful. Even though I will have to rely on my photos for future memories of past experiences here, I know I am one lucky guy. I get paid to come to places like this. I get paid to make my pal Patch famous. It’s a glorious life.
The Eagle by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
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