The haunting call of the African Fish Eagle is to many the voice of wild Africa and as a result this charismatic bird is widely known, even to those new to the safari experience. Indeed getting photographs of this eagle in action is often on the wish list of many on safari. Unfortunately wildlife action photography is never an easy undertaking and capturing images of birds in flight can be particularly challenging.
Having a strong interest in birds of prey I had from my first visit to Africa set myself the task of photographing a fish eagle fishing. After all how hard could this be? These birds are large, relatively common, fly slowly and are fairly predictable in their behavior. Yet despite all of these positive points I repeatedly failed to get any decent photographs of the eagles in action. The main problem is that there are just too many variables which can influence the outcome: distance from the bird; constantly changing exposure values due to time of day, cloud cover and altering light/dark backgrounds; fixing and focusing on a rapidly moving subject; keeping the whole bird within the frame; holding focus on the moving target; achieving a shutter speed fast enough to ensure a sharp image and having the bird maintain a good perspective to the camera throughout the action sequence are some of the issues that spring to mind. It is simply not possible to stake out a Fish Eagle, predict where a fish will rise and be close enough to capture the fishing sequence whilst achieving and maintaining sharp focus and appropriate exposure.
Clearly what is needed is an ability to control the situation. If one could dictate where and when the bird will fish then it should be possible to get into an ideal position sufficiently close to the anticipated action at a suitable time of day and with an appropriate background, all of which dramatically increase the chance of capturing a fishing sequence of acceptable quality. There are a number of places in Africa where local fishermen have habituated wild Fish Eagles such that the eagles fly down to snatch discarded fish/fish parts. Such is the case on two of Kenya’s Rift Valley freshwater lakes –Naivasha and Baringo.
Both lakes Naivasha and Baringo support high densities of African Fish Eagles and both are ideal sites for photographing Fish Eagles in action. Whilst Lake Naivasha has more Fish Eagles and a longer tradition of “feeding” these eagles I prefer Lake Baringo for Fish Eagle photography. The weather on Lake Naivasha can be capricious with a tendency for unpredictable short spells of rain and wind which creates an unpleasant swell on the lake whilst the light levels can be surprisingly poor –two factors which together make it difficult to get well-exposed images. The other issue I have with Naivasha is that there are always many tourist boats out on the lake –almost all of which will be tossing fish out for the eagles. As a result the eagles are usually satiated by mid-morning and stop responding to thrown fish. So if visiting Lake Naivasha it is imperative that you arrange an early departure to maximize chances!
I have found Lake Baringo a much more satisfying experience for Fish Eagle action photography. Baringo is a more placid and predictable lake which enjoys many more days of clear blue sky than Naivasha. Whilst Baringo Fish Eagles have not been habituated to thrown fish for as long as those at Naivasha they
are not backward at coming forward! Far fewer tourists visit Lake Baringo and the chances are that yours will be the only tourist boat on the lake and so any Fish Eagles you come across will be up for it.
Mornings are best on Baringo with a 07:30-08:00 departure being ideal. During daylight there are always a few Njemps fishermen fishing on the lake. They are more than happy to sell fish particularly as tourists always pay top dollar! As an additional service at no extra cost, the fisherman will open up the abdominal cavity of the fish and push in a small piece of the same lightweight woody material that his boat is made from -this keeps the fish afloat (the eagles tear their fish into pieces and discard the "float"). Once you have a supply of baitfish your boatman will know where each pair of eagles is likely to be. An experienced boatman will approach a suitable perched eagle (usually one on a tree on the shoreline or on one of the islands) then discuss the choreography of the impending action. Ideally the sun should be behind you and preferably not too high in the sky. The camera settings should be prepared and checked in advance before instructing the boatman on exactly where the baitfish should be placed (thrown!). Just prior to throwing a fish the boatman will whistle loudly to alert the eagle. It is best that the boat is well forward of the perched eagle (and the fish is then thrown out at right angles to the boat) so that the bird will fly parallel rather than directly towards the boat. It is far easier to lock and maintain focus on a bird moving parallel to the camera and it is always best that you give yourself plenty of time to lock on before the bird approaches the action zone.
Initially I tried using a 500mm f4 IS lens (handheld) to obtain images however ensuring the subject remained fairly central in the frame throughout the sequence proved almost impossible with such a large lens. At Baringo the eagles will often approach the boat very closely resulting in a clipped image with a 500mm lens. I shoot with Canon gear and have always found the Canon 400mm f5.6 lens to be an ideal tool for catching birds in flight however even with this lens the birds can be too close. In fact my best sequence was obtained using a canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS lens @ 200mm on a Canon 7D ( the cropping effect of the 7D’s sensor effectively makes this a 320mm lens). Camera settings depend on the make/model of the camera and the ambient light conditions. For the 7D I use the AI servo AF mode and set the focus system for AF point expansion manually choosing the centre point to start. In good light, especially with the sun behind me I tend to use the evaluative metering exposure mode and shutter priority (Av) though in more challenging light I use manual settings and take a few test shots before the action begins. I adjust the aperture setting to achieve a speed of at least 1/2000s but even with a very sharp fast lens such as the Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS lens I prefer, if possible to shut down the aperture to at least 5.6 to maintain a decent depth of field as a fish eagle has a wingspan of nearly two metres and when flying parallel to the camera the autofocus will lock on to the tip of the nearest wing creating an out of focus head/eye when the depth of field is shallow (e.g. at f2.8). In good light this should be achievable without having to drop the ISO below 400 (with modern sensors/image processors -essentially noise free). Finally I have the drive set at high speed continuous (8fps for the 7D).
So with the sun behind you, the boat in a perfect position, the camera pre-set (having done some test exposures) it is time to whistle up an eagle and toss the fish. Your bird visibly sits up in response to the whistle, the fish flies through the air and lands in the perfect spot, your index finger twitches as your eagle seems to hold back momentarily before taking to the air. After a few moments of angst the autofocus finally locks on to your bird and you follow his flight path as he approaches the fish in a trajectory parallel to your camera. All is going like clockwork and you are about to press the shutter …….but just before the start of machine-gun fire from your camera you hear a loud splash and a curse from the boatman, your eagle’s mate perched hidden on a low branch near to the boat has sneaked in and grabbed the fish!
This is nature and the unexpected is always around the corner! Such was our experience on Baringo and it was only on my sixth attempt that I got a short sequence of images that I was happy with; even then the Fish Eagle had the last laugh.
We were getting close to running out of fish and so our boatman was cutting the larger fish in half and pushing a piece of local “balsam” into the flesh to ensure that it floated. We stationed ourselves just off a small wooded island that held a Fish Eagle nest. The female was on the nest and the male was in a nearby tree. Our position seemed perfect though the sun was now quite high in the sky and the light was becoming harsh. Our boatman gave a loud whistle and the male eagle sat up, the fish was thrown and the eagle clearly watched with interest as the fish landed in the water nearby in an ideal spot. Unfortunately the bird just sat there! Our boatman then repeated the exercise with our last piece of fish but again the eagle failed to respond. My daughter, who was sat in the centre of the boat noticed that the first piece of fish seemed to be alive as it was moving. In fact the water appeared to be boiling just below it. Then we saw a couple of black whiskers and a cavernous mouth break the water surface –something was nibbling at our bait! The eagle also saw it and took to the air. Luckily I managed to raise the camera and tried to lock focus on him as he banked and came in on a shallow dive parallel to the boat. The first few images were out of focus but the AF then locked on as he came down fast and struck the water just beyond the bait. As he lifted clear he had a wriggling catfish in his talons ……and I had my short sequence of images. Clearly the eagle hadn’t read the script but the end result was very satisfying!
It is easy to get hooked on the thrill of such action photography and I am sure that with further practice a better series would have been forthcoming. However, whilst I could happily have spent many hours trying to pursue the perfect fishing sequence my wife and daughter had reached the end of their patience. In addition the strong overhead sun and an exhausted supply of bottled water left us at risk of heatstroke so it was back to the Baringo Country Club for Tilapia, chips and a cold beer or two!
Edited by Rainbirder, 24 February 2013 - 10:17 PM.