Caught in the Act

To capture bald eagles on film, a husband-and-wife team has spent years perfecting the art of anticipation

02-01-2001 // NWF Staff

Photographs by Tom and Pat Leeson

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First they heard the bird's telltale, high-pitched scream. Then they saw it: a bald eagle soaring on the wind across a deep-blue sky. Instinctively, Tom and Pat Leeson aimed their cameras at the acrobatic creature.

When the bird began a rollover maneuver, Tom guessed that it was changing the direction of its descent to follow the flow of the thermals, and he made the necessary adjustments. Click! He snapped the camera's shutter just in time to catch the eagle in the middle of a roll, flying upside down (right) toward its fishing grounds on the British Columbia coast.

The Washington couple, who have been photographing wildlife together since the mid-1970s, are avid students of bald eagle behavior. "We've learned that the more you know about a creature's traits and abilities, the better your chances are of anticipating its next move and capturing that move on film," says Pat.

Over the years, the Leesons have spent thousands of hours in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, observing and photographing America's national symbol--and practicing the art of anticipation. As their images on the following pages demonstrate, practice does pay off.

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Along the coast of British Columbia, a bald eagle plucks a fish from the sea. Tom Leeson captured the electrifying moment on film while sitting offshore in a small boat. Panning his camera, he followed the bird's flight through the viewfinder and guessed when it would lower its talons into the water. "In an instance like this," says Tom, "you have only a split second to decide when to snap the shutter on your camera. It's easy to guess wrong." After grasping its prey, the raptor spreads the tips of its primary feathers to help build up enough speed to lift its 14-pound body into the air. The bald eagle is an opportunist. It will often try to steal another eagle's food rather than catch its own. The result: battles between the birds, such as this pair fighting over a fish in Alaska.

 

Amid snow flurries, an eagle spreads its wings to form a protective "tent" around its prey. "We've noticed that these birds seem to use body language to send out signals to other eagles," says Pat Leeson. "This one undoubtedly was letting its rivals know that it did not intend to share its meal." The Leesons photographed the bird in southeastern Alaska.

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