Travel,  Wildlife

Photographing Bald Eagles on the Upper Mississippi River

Each year Bald Eagles from the northern United States and Canada migrate to the Upper Mississippi River.  These Bald Eagles congregate near the locks and dams on the river where the water is not frozen so the eagles can fish.  One of my favorite dams to photograph Bald Eagles in the winter is Lock and Dam 14 near Le Clair, Iowa.

Bald Eagle Ready to Strike

Lock and Dam 14 is located about 2 miles south of Interstate 80 just across the Iowa border from Illinois.  The GPS coordinates for the Lock and Dam 14 parking area are:  41.574169, -90.404863.  Lock and Dam 13 is about a 1/2 hour north in Fulton, Ilinois.  I found that while there were more Bald Eagles at Lock and Dam 13, they were more spread out and typically had longer shots compared to Lock and Dam 14.
 
There is a concrete boardwalk at Lock and Dam 14 where the photographers line up to photograph the Bald Eagles.  It can be quite crowded on a crisp and sunny winter afternoon.  Lock and Dam 14 is typically a better afternoon shoot than a morning shoot.  If you have clear skies in the morning you can be shooting into the sun on some shots as the boardwalk is on the west side of the river.  However, some side lit shots can also be taken in the morning.
 
Juvenile Bald Eagle One Wing Out
 
The eagles start arriving at the Lock and Dam in mid to late December and leave by late February / early March.  Cold weather is typically better for photographing the Bald Eagles at the Lock and Dams as the other bodies of water are frozen forcing the eagles to congregate at the Locks and Dams to fish.  These are perfect conditions to photograph the eagles (if you can stand the cold). 
 
It can get quite cold in Iowa in the winter, even down to the single digits.  

Tips for photographing the Bald Eagles in the winter

  • Dress for the cold weather.  Dress in layers, invest in hand and feet warmers, and wear insulated boots.  The parking lot is close to the boardwalk so you can quickly return to the car if you need to warm up.
  • The parking lot can be icy in the winter be careful and make sure you have good traction.
  • Bring spare batteries for your camera as the batteries will lose their charge faster in the cold.
  • Most of the shots will be in flight photos of the eagles.  Make sure you have you auto focus set for auto tracking (AI Server – Canon, Continuous Focus – Nikon)
  • Watch your shutter speeds.  It can be cloudy and gray in Iowa in the winter.  Also when an eagle dives for a fish, the background will darken causing the shutter speeds to drop.  You may need to raise your ISO to keep your shutter speed at 1/1000 of a second or faster.
  • Be patient.  It may be a slow day and then all of a sudden you will get a flurry of eagles in close proximity.  One evening after a slow day, most of the photographers had left about 20 minutes before sunset.  We had 7 really close Bald Eagle Flybys and dives for fish in the remaining 20 minutes prior to sunset.

Related Blog Posts
A Morning with a Juvenile Bald Eagle
Jasper-Pulaski Sandhill Crane Migration
Bald Eagle Photo Gallery

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