Sunrise on the Sangre de Cristo Range was exquisite this morning, the golden glow of sunlight reflecting off fresh snow on the 14,000 foot peaks as a new winter storm begins to build in the distance. This was the highlight of my trek to the top of my favorite mountain today. Perhaps the four footed critters sense the approaching weather and have already hunkered down. As I began my descent I noticed that the distant peaks were already becoming obscured by dark clouds, it’s a good thing I got an early start!
Unsatisfied with the results of my adventure in the high winter wonderland, my thoughts turned to Eleven Mile Canyon. The clouds were giving me that beautiful soft light that I knew would be perfect for photographing bald eagles. Plus I know it is nearing the mating season and I am hoping that some of the migrating raptors decide on Eleven Mile as a place to hold over before they meet up and journey on.
A quick glance as I entered the park showed no activity at the nest so I decided to drive the entire six miles into the canyon, hoping for eagles especially, maybe even a golden… but satisfied to see any kind of wildlife stirring in the frozen world that is the Colorado Rocky Mountains! The river at the mouth of the canyon was mostly frozen over, a situation inhospitable to any of my favorite wild creatures! About halfway up, openings in the ice began to appear and it wasn’t long before I spotted a lone American Dipper fishing along water’s edge. Much to my surprise the brave little fellow was actually leaping off his perch on the shoreline to dive under the icy water in search of a meal. It was a challenge to capture him in the air as he dove into the water but I finally managed to get a satisfactory image. I tried to follow him under the water to capture his exit, but that proved to be nearly impossible. The little guys actually swim under the surface for several seconds, changing direction all the while!
As I drove up the canyon I noticed that all of my favorite locations looked amazing in the snow and ice, the water even more beautiful than usual. I stopped several times to get out and photograph the amazing scenes using my 25-105mm lens with a circular polarizer attached, which was perfect for shooting the river as it snakes it’s way out of the mountains. I thought about trying some long exposures but it was extremely cold down by the water. I think I’ll wait for my 10 stop ND to arrive in the mail later this week and make another run at it next week with a heavy coat on! I decided this image looks best in black and white… and I also used my own toning method that I have perfected over the years to add a hint of blue to enhance even more, the mood of the bone chilling cold!
As I got back in the truck I spotted the faint shadow of a huge bird passing by… It was a bald eagle flying low, up the canyon towards the reservoir. I tried to keep an eye on him as I proceeded up the canyon, but a driving mistake here could be catastrophic! I was in no mood for a swim in the river so I eventually lost track of my intended subject 🙁
More and more open water began to appear and the ducks and geese were taking advantage of it for themselves. I hoped that where waterfowl were gathering there would also be eagles in search of fish. My eyes scanned the shoreline and the treetops as I searched for the huge raptors. Finally, a large bird in a tree about 60 yards off the opposite bank. I put my 400mm and 1.4x extension back on and took a look. It was a bald eagle, staring at me from the distance. I snapped a couple using the truck window frame to steady the camera and dialed in the proper exposure compensation, well over a stop against the bright morning sky. Once I had captured the perching scene I looked down to reset my shutter speed to a 1600th of a second in anticipation of a flight. When I looked back up the great bird was no longer on the perch. I leapt out of the truck and looked around frantically for him and eventually
spotted him heading right at me! I acquired focus and completely loaded my buffer. A couple seconds later the camera buffer had cleared and the eagle soared past and made a circle just overhead. I felt so blessed to have witnessed such a tremendous flight 🙂
Eventually he flew around a rock outcropping and steered toward the east end of the reservoir, an uninhabited area of the lake where I have long believed the raptors go to spend their days. As I made my way back down the canyon I spotted the second eagle of our nesting pair, high in a tree on top of the mountains, motionless as if frozen as surely as the river they depend on for sustenance. I captured a couple more images even though I knew she was too far off for a usable picture, I can’t help myself.. a bald eagle!
My day wasn’t done though… as I drove along another large raptor flew past on his way down the canyon. I tried to follow what appeared to be some sort of white hawk, but he never stopped and I didn’tget a chance to get out the camera. A couple more scenery pictures of the frozen river and I decided to call it a day, and what a day it was in the frozen world of the Colorado Rocky Mountain winter.
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