Not the best trip I have had down to Alma, Wisconsin for eagle photography but far from the worst. The shooting light is horrible when the sun is out as you are in a cross light situation which creates horrid shadows on the eagles for the most part. I've come to the realization shooting on overcast days is probably better to neutralize the harsh light. The other issue: by the time time the rising sun clears the huge bluffs on the east side of the Mississippi, you are looking at about 3 hours max of shooting before you are pretty much shooting a back lit subject. Even more harsh.
Alma is about 145 miles or 2 1/2 hours from my home. Knowing of the short decent light window I had, I elected to leave the house about 5:30 am in order to maximize the short time. I never get tired of seeing the sun come up in the morning. Goes back to my early years spent in duck blinds waiting for shooting time. A lot of the times the sky is more majestic in the morning than the evening. I had to stop just north of Maiden Rock, WI on highway 35 to snap a few shots of a iced-over, snow-free Lake Pepin. Even if I didn't get a decent eagle shot the rest of the day, this sunrise made the early departure and long trip worth it.
I could have stayed in the spot until the sun came up over the bluffs but I really was itchy to get to Alma to see if there were any eagles. I wasn't too worried because as soon as there was enough light to see, there were eagles in the trees along the road, sitting on the ice, flying along the shore and over the bluffs. Eagles everywhere!
Upon arriving in Alma and setting up in my favorite spot just below lock and dam #4, the eagles started to feed. There were anywhere from 6 to 25 eagles either picking off fish, harassing the gulls, or buzzing the golden eye ducks below the dam. Most the river was frozen above the dam and the river below it was rolling like a stream filled with Jello. The slow water was making it easy for the river to try to continue to freeze up.
Getting ready to make a pass over the ducks.
Cruising along the far shore.
Grabbing a fish right in front of me.
Speaking of grabbing fish, it not uncommon to see an eagle eat a small fish it just caught will still in flight. However, this next sequence shows on eagle grab a nice fish while another eagle tries to steal it right out of the talons of the first eagle!
Guess the lesson here is always hang on to your fish with two talons.
Once the light got to the point I was nearly shooting into the sun, I decided to head to the Minnesota side of the Mississippi River and drive up to Read's Landing which is another good eagle photo spot. It's where the Chippewa River flows meets Old Man River. Problem was the flow in both rivers is so slow due to the drought the confluence was frozen over! I have never seen it ice totally ice over. Not even in -20° weather. That pretty much ended the day. I did stop briefly at Colvill Park in Red Wing, MN. There were 5 eagles in that area but nothing really photo worthy so I headed towards home. I did make a couple of passes along Black Dog Road on the Minnesota River. That was also frozen up for the most part with the exception of the water outlets for Black Dog Lake. Even the river bend in front of the power plant was totally iced over! 6 eagles total there. 4 juvies and 2 matures.
The sunset was not nearly as spectacular as I made my way through the Minneapolis metro. Counting all of the raptors I saw from just before sunrise (I saw two great horned owls just outside of Prescott, WI in the headlights), the finally tally for the day was 99 bald eagles, 14 hawks (most in the metro sitting on top of light poles) and the 2 owls.
Before making the trip down, I would highly recommend contacting Wings Over Alma to get information on the eagle numbers. Neither their website nor Facebook page has not been updated on a regular basis in terms of numbers, but I'm sure a phone call will let you know what is going on. Their number is (608) 685-3303. You can also check the website at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, MN as they do post eagles numbers a little more timely. Keep in mind these eagles move to where the food is. The best plan is to start out at either Alma or Read's Landing and work your way along the river until you find the birds!
As always, keep 'em flying.