I am lucky enough to be working with master bird photographer and tour leader Robert O’Toole as I co-lead a pair of eagle photography workshops in Alaska. It’s Robert’s 12th year (Consecutive), my 19th year (Not consecutive.) We’ve had extremely sunny days here in Alaska for the first few days of Workshop #1. The attendees have been treated to some very nice light. But wow it is cold. The first morning when we got up it was six degrees above zero. The next day nine degrees above zero and same thing on the remaining days. The winds have been gusting to 55 MPH but fortunately not while we were shooting. Gusts were at 20-30 MPH on the third day which made it seem VERY, VERY cold but the eagles love the cold and the wind so it made for some nice photo opportunities.
Because it is so cold we found several convocations of eagles in groups ranging from 75 to 200. They seem to be more motivated to hunt together when it’s cold. Most days have offered favorable winds although they have frequently been shifting.
If you’re new to bird photography you may not know that the two most important things to understand are wind and sun direction. In a perfect world, the sun and wind both would always be at your back which means the birds would fly straight at you and always be in perfect light. However it is NOT a perfect world and sometimes you find the opposite where the wind is against you and the sun behind you which usually amounts to a shut-out. We have generally had decent winds all week and hope that trend continues. We also have to worry about the water.
When photographing eagles in Alaska that means boats and water so another dimension that takes on critical importance is tides. Knowing the tides is the difference between our boat getting where it needs to AND BACK without problems. That sometimes means that if the eagles fly into a bay which is shallow and low-tide is coming we cannot follow or risk beaching the boat and being stranded for hours. Not good.
We spend a great deal of time studying tides, depth charts and weather on a trip like this. One wrong move could send us somewhere that we get shut out or worse.
However cold it is, on the water it’s colder. When it’s super cold and windy the weather gear we bring can become almost as important as our cameras. If you can’t stand the cold you can’t make any pictures. In my next report from Alaska I’ll discuss photo gear, but now I want to talk about clothing.
I have a variety of cold-weather gear with me. Some of it’s old stuff I’ve used up here forever and some of it is new. I’ll mention a few of the more important parts.
Generally, it’s important to dress in multiple layers with a waterproof outer layer in Alaska. Gloves and head / face protection are a must. I always bring AT LEAST two layers of gloves, with multiple backup pairs. Balaclavas also really help.
Gloves are incredibly important. They may be the most important piece of gear you bring to Alaska. Your hands are usually the first thing to notice the cold so selecting the correct glove means you can stay out shooting and the wrong glove means you go home.
I like the AquaTech Sensory Gloves but in super cold environments I go with rechargeable heated gloves by Volt that rely on a battery and then I switch out of those to a thin liner with the AcquaTech. I am still searching for the perfect solution but on this trip I have five different pairs of gloves which I mix and match depending on the situation.
Good warm quality waterproof boots are also highly recommended, and I have been very happy with Muckboots. They aren’t cheap but they are waterproof, warm and comfortable – all of which are essential on a trip like this one. When it’s extra cold, I go with XTRATUF Bama Sokket Insulating Removable Boot Liners. I bring two pair so one can be drying out while I wear the other one. You will want VERY thin socks if you’re going to wear these because anything else may negatively impact the fit of your shoes/boots.
These are boot liner socks made out of an acrylic fiber/ cotton combination that insulates against the cold and keeps your feet dry. These wonders keep feet warm and dry down to -15 F without any heater packs.
These are really comfortable and they keep your feet warm and dry, eliminating the need for bulky expensive thick socks.
I like to wear fleece pants underneath my rain pants. The Grundens Gage Breathable Anuri Wind Proof Fleece Pants are my favorite. They are VERY warm and when worn with a waterproof pant provide so much warmth many people won’t need long underwear.
I also have a waterproof outer rain layer (which I haven’t had to use on this trip) and a good old fashioned knit stocking hat to wear on top of my head.
Last but not least, mini hand warmers (that I can wear both inside my gloves and boots) are a Godsend. They keep the blood warm. The trick is to tape them to your wrists not just thrown inside your glove. They are most effective that way.
I’ll have at least one more update from Alaska. We’ve finished the first workshop and the second starts tomorrow. It’s an honor and a privilege to spend time with these fantastic creatures and I hope that my pictures and my descriptions help others to get excited about photographing eagles.