Isle of Mull - September 2016 - Edd Cottell

Photographing The White Tailed Eagle

The White Tailed Eagle is one of the largest birds in the world, but don’t let its size fool you, this is a fast, agile bird that can be difficult to photograph, especially during its iconic hunting dive. I have just returned from a week on the Isle of Mull and spent four of those days aboard the Lady Jayne run by Mull Charters photographing these wonderful birds. In this blog I’ll cover what I do to help prepare myself before going out on the boat, what I’m thinking about on the boat, and what happens when an eagle approaches the boat.

This was my fifth year of trying to photograph the eagles and preparation helps a great deal in getting those desired images. I’d highly recommend getting practise photographing something that is fast moving and changes direction quickly. I’m quite fortunate, I live in mid Wales and live close to a couple of Red Kite feeding centres; Gigrin Farm and Bwlch Nant-yr-Arian. Places like these are fantastic as you can get hundreds of dives per hour (compared with 1-3 dives on the boat trip). Gigrin is the better of the two as you are close to the birds so you can practise your tracking technique as they circle in the sky and hone your reactions to their sudden dive towards the ground. At Nant-yr-Arian, you are a bit further away, but the birds are fed next to a lake, and occasionally a bit of food is thrown into the water and the Kites will dive and grab the food in much the same way the eagle does. This provides a good way to practise your timing. Despite the size difference, the time taken for a Kite to grab food from the water is very similar to the eagle. It happens very quickly so be alert!

Now, onto the boat trip. Before the boat even sets off, Martin, the skipper, will very rightly state that the birds are wild and will not be beckoned down at will. Please remember that wild animals are to be respected and if you want to enjoy good views them, you have to be patient. The first time I did this trip, not a single eagle took to the skies. I was bitterly disappointed, but have returned each year since and done multiple trips during my time on Mull. So, if possible, book multiple trips to help maximise your chances. After the introductions, you’ll set off in search of some eagles. As the boat cruises along, bread will be thrown out to attract gulls, which act as an early warning system as when they scatter there is usually something large and predatory about. This is an excellent time to make sure your camera is setup correctly as the gulls make an easy subject as they circle and hover next to the boat. Set continuous autofocus and continuous shooting and set your desired iso and aperture. I prefer manual mode so I know the exposure won’t change; the eagle will fly through numerous light conditions and I want to guarantee that the eagle will be exposed correctly. For each trip I used an iso of 800 and the widest aperture of whatever lens I had attached, with the aim of having a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 sec. To freeze the action you need a fast shutter speed as you’ll have to overcome camera shake, bobbing of the boat, and the movement of the eagle itself. Of course you may opt for a slower shutter speed to create a sense of motion, that choice is purely up to you.

Next is position in the boat. The most popular places are the rear corners as these usually provide the most unobstructed view (beware of the ladder that sits in the middle as that can spoil a shot!). If your balance is good, you can stand on the centre housing which will get you around a foot higher and give you a completely unobstructed view of the eagle. Just bear in mind that if you choose to do this, the only thing to hold onto will be the wheel house. It can be frustrating to miss a shot because you didn’t get into a good position and that ‘moment’ was blocked by a random body part (or ladder).

It’s worth keeping an eye out for eagles the entire trip. We were lucky to spot a juvenile eagle harassing a Gannet for its catch, albeit many hundreds of metres away, but it was a great bit of behaviour to see. On another trip, whilst the group was watching one of the adult birds sat in a tree, a juvenile eagle flew low along the shoreline before joining its parent. There is also a plethora of other wildlife to look out for too, including Common Seals, Cormorants, Shags, Eider Ducks, Herring Gulls, Great Black Backed Gulls, Gannets, Dolphins, and many other creatures, you never know what you’ll see, so stay vigilant.

The eagles are quite accustomed to the sight and sound of the boat, and will often fly toward it to claim its prize. Other times, the eagles will quite happily sit waiting for a fish to be thrown into the water before flying to the boat, and occasionally they will not fly at all or be nowhere to be seen as they’ve fed already. When an eagle does approach the boat it is important to stay quiet and not move too erratically, you don’t want to scare it off.

With the eagle circling the boat, a fish will be thrown into the water for it to grab. Keep an eye on where the fish lands and what happens to it. It will drift with the wind and flow of the water and may be carried off by a gull. Check the wind direction as the eagle will always fly into the wind before diving toward the water so it can gain height afterwards; eagles can’t take off from the water and must swim to shore if they mistakenly end up in it. Get a good solid stance with your feet as the boat can bob up and down quite a bit and you don’t to lose your footing at the crucial moment. Hopefully this is where all your practise pays off. Get the eagle in the viewfinder nice and early whilst its circling overhead; you may also be treated to the eagle flipping over and changing direction rapidly which can make for some good pictures. Trying to get it it focus during the dive can be very difficult and it's easy to miss the entire sequence; this has happened to me in previous years and it's very disappointing, especially when the eagle is close and the light is good. The eagle looks quite sedentary when overhead, but when it tucks in its wings, it speeds up dramatically and you’ll hear a rush of air as it plummets towards the water. Be prepared for this as this is when I find it easiest to lose sight of the eagle through the viewfinder. This is somewhat mitigated by using smaller focal lengths, however the eagle will be smaller in the frame. Personally, I used both a 400mm and 600mm lens on a crop sensor body and found them to be just about right to fill the frame, but there is little room for error. There were times when the eagle came very close and all I could fit in was the head and body. Your mileage may vary as each dive is different, you just don’t know how close it will come to the boat. For the undecided, a zoom lens in the 70-300 or 100-400 or 200-500 range would be ideal. Following the eagle with a smooth panning motion remembering to continually focus on the bird. Press and hold the shutter button when you have the eagle in the dive and keep it pressed until you see it lift away from the water.

At this point it's very tempting to inspect your pictures, but it's well worth while to keep looking at the eagle. There might be further chances to photograph it as it circles round the boat for the final time and you might get to see it land on the shoreline. We were fortunate on the last day as both adult birds were in the air at the same time and both picked up a fish, before landing on some nearby rocks right next to the water to eat them.

Hopefully this will give you a brief idea of what to expect on this trip. The key is practise. Be familiar with your camera and get comfortable tracking and photographing birds in flight. You may only get 1-2 chances to photograph an eagle at close quarters so put in the hard work before you go. Mull is a wonderful place with some of the most awesome wildlife. If you happen to visit Mull and only do one thing, make it this trip to see the power and beauty of the White Tailed Eagles. Thank you Martin and Alex of Mull Charters for another super set of trips!

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