Immature White-bellied Sea-Eagle

Immature White-bellied Sea-Eagle

PDF Week 10/2016: Canon 7D, 400mm (on 100-400 zoom lens), 1/1250, f8, ISO 125.

The white-bellied sea eagle is the second largest raptor in Australia. It is revered by indigenous people in many parts of Australia, and is the subject of various folk tales. I am feeling privileged to have come so close to this beauty. I took dozens of photos when this animal was at the other end of the freshwater lagoon, hundreds of metres away. It was sitting on a dead tree trunk and I could not figure out what it was. What bird looks like a raptor but is the size of the nervous geese, darters and cormorants flocking and frolicking everywhere? Even in the distance it seemed huge.

Already settled with the thought of only having a photo for identification purposes, a blurry small spot in the middle of a frame, I moved on. Now at the other end of the lagoon, I heard a big commotion. In the middle of it all, there were these huge wings that definitely didn't belong to an Eastern Osprey. The bird settled in a dead tree top not far from where I had been initially. So, I ran the few hundred metres back.

Now, I was close but the branches blocked my view. Now, I was pretty sure that it is an immature White-bellied Sea Eagle, maybe 4-5 years old, and shortly before getting the more distinctive white feather look. I took a few photos just so I would not leave that huge opportunity empty handed. Protected, or maybe I should rather say obstructed, by a row of bushes and trees bordering the lagoon, I worked my way closer and into a position where I could see the whole body of the eagle. Photo after photo, always ready for action, my arms got heavier and heavier, but the dear bird would just sit and watch. My back and legs got impatient, the camera got warm and the sun in my back reminded me that it was time for morning tea or at least a sip of water.

The eagle was definitely interested whenever a bird flew past, a few ducks would move, when a Tilapia or a big eel would splash in the water. I felt the horror of being in the situation of a journalist, maybe about to witness something gruesome. It would be something, that was my job to document and share. At the same time it was something that might almost break my heart. Now I was as close as it would get, but there were still too many branches for really excellent photos. Had the eagle decided to dive down for a duck or a fish, chances are high that this would have happened behind some bush.

Have you ever listened to nature, given yourself time to observe and absorb it? With the presence of the White-bellied Sea Eagle, the setting definitely changed. It is like underwater when you notice a change of fish behaviour. They swarm around you and make you a yummy part of a bait ball. Even worse, all the medium sized fishes are suddenly gone. You feel something is wrong. You can literally feel the tension of a dark danger luring in the unknown. When some birds started whistling their normal songs, I felt like this was the signal to get my camera ready. It was in the air that the danger was over.

Not so my bodily pain. It was quite clear that the eagle would soon fly off and try his luck somewhere else. My adrenalin pumped unsure which direction the eagle would head. Did I have the right camera settings? Was the zoom ring loose in case the bird came into my direction? Do I focus manually on the lens and turn off the lens stabilizer, both extremely risky but necessary for the perfect photo with as little noise as possible? Where did I set the focus point and was I ready to press the back button for focus? You always make decisions in such situations. You always wish you had a better camera and lens for that particular situation. And: you can't wait to know if you could live up to the challenge and deliver a result. Did I press the shutter release at the right time? You will always find that one of the photos is not bad. You will always think, that photo should and could be better.

With time and distance comes reality. It is just another bird photo. It used to be just another nudibranch photo. At this stage, I normally realise that I am the only one really being excited about such intimate encounters. I am the only one with the context and the story behind the photo. Of course, I tried to plan the elements, the composition and the background. But the end result is still random to a certain degree. The photo is cropped a little, to show-off the whole animal and the pretty good focus.

Where is the story and context for everyone else? My facebook page makes me believe that the audience today does not care about the blue beak of this bird. Is that blue a herbicide marker dye commonly used around here? Is the animal sick? Some people will care that a branch in the foreground is obstructing the view on the bird. They won't see that as lending the photo depth and corresponding with the tree tops in the background. It is maybe simply boring, something everyone could do with a little bit of effort or trickery.

Context in photography does rarely happen inside the photos any longer. It is very important who takes the photo and how successful any part of the photo is. Was it published? Did it win a prize? Was it taken by a celebrity or a member of my religious group? Does it show a celebrity? Is it a rare animal, one that is almost extinct, or only to be found involved with expensive travelling? Who wants to look at a photo that has absolutely no potential to go viral, nor to inspire young and old people? Who has got time, to look, let alone read? Nowadays, it is easy to help wildlife photography charm in many ways. Photoshop is one of them, but there is also baiting and other questionable practices. The audience is used to and happy about being served canned food. There is value in it for sure, and it can be as healthy as fresh and true food.

Personally, I found out that it matters that good memories are shared somehow. This photo is fresh and only slightly edited. I didn't even get the annoying red tint out that drives me crazy. It is a memory and a story about my time in Brisbane. Whether someone gets jealous of or pities my camera or camera handling skills should be irrelevant. Maybe there is someone who sees the beauty in the eagle and feels inspired to immerse into nature themselves or even into photography. Maybe they inspire their kids or help in preserving some of the nature habitats that are so important to us all. We may be spoiled in Queensland, but there are gems and memories to be shared everywhere.


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