Could you wait two weeks for a single perfect shot?
My work photographing golden eagles in Scotland is part of an ongoing project, partly subsidised by the North Harris Trust, to build up a library of photographs of a wide variety of subjects to promote the area for wildlife tourism. Over the last two years I have spent 172 days working on the North Harris estate, and there is still lots to photograph.
I have used Nikon equipment for over 40 years, mostly because it’s so durable. When I was photographing golden eagles from my winter bait hide, I used a combination of Nikon D3s, D3x and D300 bodies with a 500mm f/4 VR lens and either a 1.4x or a 1.7x Nikon teleconverter.
I first developed the technique of tempting golden eagles down to bait in winter in the early 1990s. Baiting with red deer carrion is permissible by law, but only with the consent of the landowner. For my recent work on Harris, I used a ‘flat-pack’ hide design consisting of a timber framework and waterproof covering, which I then camouflaged with a mixture of netting and natural materials to help it blend in. I make my hides as habitable as possible. The more comfortable you are, the longer you’ll wait, and the more you’ll see.
All being well, golden eagles can respond to baiting within a couple of weeks. I had golden eagles visiting the site regularly after three and a half weeks of a five-week trip. They only visited the carcass early or late in the day, though, and came most often in bad weather. They rarely stayed for more than a quarter of an hour.
Light levels were often so low that I needed to shoot exposures as long as a quarter of a second, which meant I needed to wait until the bird was perfectly still and had paused to look up between feeding. As the eagles became conditioned to the noise of the camera, I started to introduce other sounds, to subtly prompt them to look up.
I also photographed golden eagles at the nest. This is more controversial nowadays, but with over a dozen pairs breeding on North Harris, I was determined to record this aspect of their lives. The eyries of virtually all golden eagles in Scotland are monitored by raptor groups, and I had the advantage of working with a local recorder. I decided to work at a site where I could install a hide on a narrow cliff ledge. Hides must be introduced gradually and the reactions of the adults must be checked after each stage, from a distance, to ensure that they have accepted the changes to the environment around their nests.
During the early stages of constructing my hide, I left a ‘dummy lens’ in place to help get the adult eagles acclimatised to a shiny object being near their nest. It was made from an aluminium can and section of plastic drainpipe.
When it came to using the hide, it was almost impossible to risk changing lenses at such close range, so I used two together, alternating between a 200-400mm and a 500mm attached to a heavy-duty fluid Sachtler tripod head, and a 70-200mm attached to a Manfrotto ‘Magic Arm’ clamped onto one of the tripod legs. I could use the lenses with or without 1.4x or 1.7x teleconverters, and with either my full-frame Nikon D3s or D3x bodies or my cropped-sensor D300, which gave me great flexibility. Added to the mix was a Nikon 1 V1 with an FT1 adaptor, which I reserved for long-range photography.
My favourite image so far from this project is of a female eagle returning to her nest with prey (see right).
I used a flat-pack hide design consisting of a timber framework and waterproof covering, which I then camouflaged with a mixture of netting and natural materials
1 Laurie’s hides consist of a timber framework with a waterproof covering, which is then camouflaged using natural materials 2 On Laurie’s D300, his 500mm lens has an effective focal length of 750mm – great for getting close-up shots 3 Introducing the hides gradually gave the eagles the chance to become accustomed to them, so they’d behave naturally