Many followers of NaturesLens will probably know that David & I have been friends for many years. Well before he & Pui Hang set up NaturesLens & have enjoyed many photographic adventures together.
Just before Christmas 2017, David asked me if I had been to the Little Rann of Kutch. I said I had never even heard of it. Kutch is a little-known wildlife destination in the state of Gujarat near the Pakistan border. So off we went in March this year to carry out a recce for NaturesLens.
During December 2017, I was lucky enough to spend some time with the Wildcats, Eagles & Lynx of Spain; this was preparation for a trip that we were researching to add to our portfolio. Once again, I visited Spain in the hope of capturing some images of the elusive Iberian lynx. This wasn’t the first time that we have attempted to launch a photography trip focussed on these subjects. My initial attempt was back in January 2016, but unfortunately, it was unsuccessful for a variety of reasons, not least the lack of sightings.
I arrived in Sierra Morena hoping to be lucky as the reports I had been receiving was that lynx had been spotted in the areas on a regular basis. I arrived too late to go into the lynx hide so spent the afternoon chatting with my host about the species I hoped to photograph to see if we could turn this into a potential photography tour for the guests of NaturesLens – over the next few hours, the plan for the Wildcats, Eagles & Lynx of Spain was formed.
Our host has been working on his lynx project for some years & the area is now home to a more Iberian lynx than Doñana National Park with excellent, regular sightings.
The following morning, I rose early to visit the Imperial Spanish Eagle hide. As soon as the sun rose, to my surprise, a Golden Eagle appeared on the large rock to my right. I watched this magnificent raptor feed for a short while, to allow it to settle before I started taking images.
Although the 2018 trip to photograph the Ice Bears is already full – there is a possibility of us running the Ice Bears of the Yukon photography workshop again in 2019 or 2020, as with the 2018 trip there will only be a tiny number of places available, if you would be interested in joining one or other of us on this photography workshop deep in the wilds of the Yukon, then get in touch & we can send you details.
The moment we see the last client off when we’ve ended one of our photography holidays, usually sees us both breathe a sigh of relief, & the end of the recent Alaska Photography Holiday was no different; that point has normally been reached only by planning over a period of several years, by having planned contingency plans & contingency plans for contingency plans; at that juncture, we can perform the final few tasks to wrap the tour up, one of these is to send an email thanking our clients for their participation & inviting them to contribute some images that they captured whilst away with us, to our blog – we love showing off what clients achieve as we feel it is a good measure for other clients to see what can be captured in the relatively short time frame of one of our holidays.
So when our clients send in images or thank us via email we beam from cheek to cheek – it’s even more awesome when we receive a testimonial like this, from Jayne, regarding our Bald Eagles of Alaska Photography Holiday:
“Back home after a fabulous 10 days in Alaska. Been up for about 30 hours so it’s going to be an early night but just wanted to say anyone thinking about a wildlife photographic holiday I can’t recommend NaturesLens highly enough. Every detail is covered to make sure we have the best photographic opportunities & we always have a great laugh together. Thank you David Miles & Pui Hang Miles for everything you do.”
Jayne first published a blog posting of her own, with her recollections of the trip, you can read that blog posting here, then she sent us a selection of different images again, also of the Alaskan Bald Eagles, for us to publish on our blog – so here are those images:
As Jayne mentions on her own blog posting, the main focus of our Bald Eagles of Alaska Photography Holiday is, rather obviously, the Bald Eagles & so these first photos show the varied behaviour of these amazing birds – all up & down the Chilkat valley & the river that has carved it’s course through the mountains, eagles will be found; they fish the chumming salmon from the river & feast on the bloated fish on the banks of the frozen river, upon landing a fish or ‘liberating’ it from another bird, the adult bald eagles typically throw their head back & bark into the air, showing their dominance & announcing that they are the ‘top of the tree’.
Typically this dominance is short lived, other eagles will swoop in & attempt, in the case of the juvenile eagles, to intimidate the current fish-holder off the fish via a series of low-level swoops; in the case of the adult versus adult, the swoops are far more brutal, often resulting in contact & one bird being slammed to the ground.
It is not just eagle versus eagle contact that the fish-holder has to contend with, ravens constantly dot the river banks waiting to challenge for scraps of fish.
Often times, the bald eagle will become so annoyed with the developing situation that he will take off with the fish & fly elsewhere to finish the meal.
Often times, between meals or whilst waiting for another eagle to land a fish, the eagles perch & pose, fly around & land, all on washed up trees & drift wood that has been swept downstream by the Chilkat river.
Like many of our photography holidays that mention a specific species in the title, the bald eagles were the main focus of the NaturesLens Bald Eagles of Alaska Photography Holiday, but many other species were spotted in the Chilkat Eagle Reserve & two further days allow participants to expand their portfolio out to further topics or species.
Many of our clients produce calendars or photo books after a trip & a variety of images make these ‘pop’. So for one day, the group was offered the chance to head across the border into British Columbia & the Yukon for some high altitude landscape photography.
For another couple of days, Jayne & several others took the opportunity to visit the Kroschel Wildlife Centre, this is not a game farm like many of the ‘wildlife centres’ in the USA are, the centre takes in orphaned or injured animals from across Alaska, the owner, Steve, frequently gets calls from vets all over Alaska & is asked if he can rehome a certain species. The centre is ‘home’ to a wide variety of animals including bear, wolverine, lynx, porcupine, red fox & wolves, some of which are shown in images, captured by Jayne, below:
Whilst 2017 is too busy to prompt a return to the Chilkat Valley of Alaska & the wonderful wildlife that exists within this harsh environment, NaturesLens will be returning to Haines in 2018 or 2019 – if you would like to join us on for another Alaskan Photography Holiday, send us a message & we will add you to a list of interested clients.
Late November 2016 saw the inaugural NaturesLens Bald Eagles of Alaska Photography Holiday to South East Alaska to photograph the Bald Eagle ‘Council’. The ‘Council’ is the annual gathering of thousands of Bald Eagles on the shores of the Chilkat River to feed up for Winter on the late run of Chum or ‘Dog’ Salmon. NaturesLens based the photography holiday in Haines, a small town on the Alaskan coast – & it would be difficult to find a friendlier place.
As usual David & PN had sorted out all the travel & accommodation detail &, in addition to their presence, we enjoyed the company of 2 local guides, Joe & Thomas, both of whom know the area intimately & are accomplished photographers in their own right. The omens were therefore well set for finding the best sites for capturing images of the main subject for this holiday, the Bald Eagles of Alaska.
The scenery of the Alaskan ‘panhandle’ is the stunning product of glaciation – high snow-covered mountains & deep, wide valleys. We journeyed in from Juneau by ferry, which enabled us to take in the scenery at a leisurely pace & also to acclimatise to the temperatures (cold or, alternatively, bloody freezing, if you choose to go on deck at 0∘C when travelling at 15 knots). For much of the journey, we were glad to be scenery peepers from the comfort of the lounge!
There’s not a lot of usable daylight in Alaska in November so, having breakfasted in our comfortable apartment rooms, we usually set out soon after 7am to get to the prime Bald Eagle viewing sites. We became intimately familiar with the ‘pull-outs’ on the Highway North West of Haines. One because it was a good starting site & a second because it had a loo (don’t get too excited – no water, no heating, no warm seat (unless you got in fast after the last occupant!)).
The daily morning challenge became to balance high ISO against available light to get images which were not too grainy, but in which the birds were sharp. Later as the light improved, the sites were beautifully side lit by sunrise, leading to some stunning golden tinged imagery. The hunt was always on for the iconic images – low flying over the river with wing-tip grazing the water, the mid-air ‘L’ shape, & the fights over fish. We moved around freely, picking sites down at water level or alternatively high on the bank to get the best vantage points. There was sufficient space for everyone, even when organised groups converged with the many independent photographers on a particular highlight.
The weather varied from dry & bright to overcast to falling snow. The latter was particularly challenging as, whilst it gave us atmospheric images, autofocus tended to lock onto the snowflakes rather than the birds. On the other hand, we had some star birds that took up a stance in a nearby tree at an accessible height, & were very tolerant of the surrounding throng on cameras.
As the good light was generally over by 2pm (it was dark by 4pm), lunch was usually a snack & the evening meal was taken early in keeping with American custom.
It was off-peak season in Haines so the choice of eateries was limited but nonetheless no disappointment. Of course, the cuisine leaned towards archetypal American influenced international, but a local Bakery became a firm favourite with both a Thai & American menu. The fact that it’s run by a crazy, fun Thai lady was the added bonus. We were there for the Thanksgiving weekend – a family holiday with most of the shops closed. Nevertheless, the Bakery whipped up a takeaway Thanksgiving Supper for us, & the hotel kindly let us use a Conference Room so we could sit down together. A further highlight for the connoisseur of international imbibition, was the micro-brewery right next door to the hotel. A peculiarity of local licensing laws was that it could not operate as a bar; however, it was permitted to allow ‘tasting’ so long as no-one consumed more than the equivalent of 3 pints in any 12 hour period! There’s also a gin distillery but we never quite made it that far.
The photography was not all about bald eagles though; some of the group took the opportunity to travel over the border into Canada & the Yukon interior where there was plenty of opportunity for landscapes & cloudscapes, & we even came across 3 moose, although the grab shots did not do them justice.
There is also the Kroschel Wildlife Sanctuary, with examples of Alaskan fauna such as Red Fox, Grizzly Bear, Wolverine, Wolf, Pine Marten & Silver Fox. The animals are all orphans or rescue who would otherwise not have had a future. They live in large free-range enclosures & are habituated to their handler, but other than that they are ‘wild’ & many have been stars in wildlife documentaries. The enclosures are constructed to facilitate photography & this was a good opportunity to get close to animals that are either seldom seen or only from afar.
Our departure day was due to include half a day’s photography before a charter flight out to Juneau. However, an imminent storm meant we were called urgently to the airport & managed to ‘escape’ shortly before the weather arrived, dumping over a foot of snow.
I mentioned this was the inaugural Bald Eagles of Alaska photography tour, the implication being that there will be others. David & PN have confirmed this, although the dates are not yet set. Nevertheless, if you’re interested in capturing these iconic birds, in a stunning location & a fun atmosphere, let them know.