Every November the largest gathering of Bald Eagles happens at the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve near Haines, AK. Between 1,000-3,000 eagles come together to feast on a late run of salmon. The eagles draw birders and photographers from around the world to view the spectacle. Haines even hosts an annual Bald Eagle Festival celebrate the gathering of eagles.
By far the biggest challenge of photographing the eagles is the weather. It can be bitter cold, snowy, rainy, icy, blustery or all of the above. I recently returned from Haines and cut my trip short because over a three day period it was supposed to receive 10” of snow on day one, snow and rain on day two and highs in the teens on day 3.
There are essentially two ways to visit Haines: ferry or small plane from Juneau. The ferry is a five hour ride and in the fall leaves Juneau three days a week. Alaska Sea Planes has several daily flights from Juneau to Haines. These are small 10 passenger planes and flights are often canceled because of weather.
Several companies offer photography tours of Haines. Unless you are looking for photography instruction, a tour is not needed to see the eagles. They tend to congregate on a 3 miles stretch of land that off a major road and there are frequent stops to view the eagles.
At the bottom of the post is a quick video to give you a better feel for the location and the shooting conditions.
Tips on going to Haines, AK
- Haines is a small town and many businesses shut down in the winter. There are several hotels to select from, but no major car renal companies. The Captain’s Choice Hotel rents all wheel drive Subarus for around $75 a day. I stayed at the hotel and rented a car from them and it was simple.
- There is no cell phone service where you view the eagles. Signal is lost about 10 miles out of town.
- Most restaurants are closed, but there is a health food market and an IGA supermarket in town.
Eagle Photography Tips
- Because of the lack of daylight, there is a small window to photograph the eagles. If the sun is out there tends to be decent light from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.
- Bring as long a lens as you have. The Eagles tend to be 50’ away or more. You can consider using a teleconverter, but because there is a need for fast shutter speed you will have to balance with a high ISO.
- Be prepared to have bad / off days because of weather. I would plan on spending 5 days in Haines and hope that you see the sun on 2 of the 5 days. Below is this week’s weather (Nov 18, 2021) and as you can see not much sun.
- Photographing in snow has unique challenges: Autofocus systems don’t like to focus on snow (but they should do a better job on the eagles); gray skies and fog mean you need a higher ISO for motion capture so consider using shutter priority with auto ISO; and you will be cold and wet so pack appropriately for both yourself and your gear.
- Have a spotter. Eagles will tend to fly in and out quickly. Having a friend spot when birds are coming into an area is helpful. You may be with groups of other photographers and someone may shout out “coming in from the left” etc. It helps.
Quick video on photographing the eagles: