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An eagle-eye view

TRAVEL EDITOR'S NOTE: John Braddock of Rochester is director of development at the Salvation Army.

By John Braddock

They were perched majestically in a pair of barren trees on a dilapidated homestead abandoned during the dust bowl of the 1930s -- their white heads and dark bodies contrasted against the crisp blue sky. This sighting in the 1960s near my uncle's farm in western Kansas was the beginning of my fascination for the American bald eagle.

The view from the binoculars only increased my desire to get closer.

Our family spent a frigid winter afternoon viewing the eagles between Wabasha and Red Wing a few years ago. My efforts to photograph them that day were hampered by my inexperience as a photographer. A week later, when my prints were returned, I was greatly disappointed by the small dots in the air flying over the Mississippi.

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My desire for a closer look at these fascinating creatures was stirred again.

In August 2004, I attended a workshop in the upper peninsula of Michigan led by professional nature photographers John and Barb Gerlach. It was an excellent opportunity for me to improve on the basics of composition, light and exposure. My photos improved dramatically. This seminar was so good that I decided to try to take one photography expedition per year.

The process once again stirred my desires to get close to eagles.

Why travel to a remote island in the Aleutians of Alaska to take pictures of our national bird? Why travel with four complete strangers from Colorado to New York whose only bond was a love of nature photography and an ad answered through an Internet search?

Each of us desired to view eagles in their natural environment and to get close enough to take great photos. Andy Long of First Light Photography organized the tour "Eagles of Southwest Alaska" for photographers. Andy had been to Dutch Harbor two years ago to scout the area for eagle photography. Alaska has about 35,000 eagles but it is a vast and rugged state with huge areas which are almost inaccessible. Dutch Harbor's eagle population is about 600 on a relatively small island.

My primary goals were quite simple: to capture the wonder of eagles in flight and be close enough for portraits of eagles. I knew I couldn't wait until I arrived in Alaska to prepare and hone my skills. I began to practice technique last winter around Silver Lake. Geese are plentiful and their flight provides an easy opportunity to practice panning, focusing in motion, and the challenge getting detail of a dark bird against a light background. I also began to read some articles by others who successfully take great photos of birds in flight. "The Art of Bird Photography: The Complete Guide to Professional Field Techniques" by Arthur Morris is among the best.

Equipment is important. I purchased my first digital SLR camera a year ago. I knew some of the images I wanted were close-ups (macro) of flowers. The necessity to be able to select the proper lens for the subject guided my purchase. I now shoot with a Canon 20D. My primary lenses are a Sigma 180 mm macro for close-ups, and a Canon 100-400 mm IS zoom for flight and close-ups of wildlife.

I knew that getting close to eagles was essential to make the photos interesting.

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The 100-400 4.5 lens accomplished that in Dutch Harbor where the birds would allow us to approach them.

Personally, I find the digital camera is a terrific learning tool. I get immediate feedback on my shots.

It has been a valuable tool to improve exposure, depth of field, motion and composition.

Information

Eagle information: Wabasha, NIN www.nationaleaglecenter.org; www.baldeagleinfo.com

Dutch Harbor and Unalaska: www.unalaska. info/

Nature Photographer Magazine: www.naturephotographermag.com

Photo tours: John and Barb Gerlach: www.gerlachnaturephoto.com; Andy Long www.firstlighttours.com

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