On my most recent trip late last fall to photograph bald eagles on the Chilkat River, I made a conscious decision to shake my photography up. While I don’t claim to have the definitive bald eagle photograph (yet), I do have quite a few keepers in my archive. It was time to move beyond simply photographing bald eagles themselves and begin to take a more all-encompassing approach to the subject of the bald eagles that visit the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve near Haines, Alaska.
To start me in that direction, I decided exploring the subject of bald eagles from the perspective of a researcher would be a good place to start. This would allow me to get back to my storytelling roots, while at the same time broaden my knowledge of bald eagles.
So instead of spending time by myself photographing eagles, I spent time photographing those who study them. Lucky for me, there were two distinctly different groups of researchers working on the river while I was there. Both with interesting stories to tell.
Counting bald eagles – Haines School Citizen Science Class
First, was a Citizen Science class from the local school. Since 2009, students have been conducting a weekly count of bald eagles during the fall semester for the citizen science class at the Haines School in Haines, AK. The project is part of a field-based for-credit class, sponsored by the Takshanuk Watershed Council, in which students participate in research studies and learn about field data collection. Under the guidance of Pam Randles, Takshanuk Watershed Council Education Director, students count bald eagles in the Chilkat River Valley using spotting scopes at 10 locations and present their data at the Bald Eagle Festival held in November in Haines.
During late fall, bald eagles congregate along the Chilkat River near Haines to feed on salmon in what is one of the largest gathering of bald eagles in the world. This sounded perfect. Students interested in doing real science and fieldwork for their community sounded like a publishable story to me. I also recorded quite a bit of natural sound of the students doing their eagle count survey. My goal is to produce along with the still photo coverage, an audio-only report and perhaps a multimedia report (audio, video, and stills). There were aspects of the process the citizen scientists use to do their counts that made it perfect for an audio-only report. Bet you never thought a photographer would propose something like that!
Capturing and tracking bald eagles from the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve
While working with the Citizen Science students I discovered they would be meeting a team of researchers who were capturing bald eagles for a migration study of the eagles that visit the Chilkat River in Alaska. The study is being conducted by Rachel Wheat, a graduate student at the University of California Santa Cruz. She hopes to learn how closely bald eagles track salmon availability across time and space. The bald eagles are being tracked using solar-powered GPS satellite transmitters (also known as a PTT – platform transmitter terminal) that attach to the backs of the eagles using a lightweight harness. Helping with the eagle capturing was Steve Lewis, Raptor Management Coordinator, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service – Juneau Field Office.
Lewis employed leg snare traps and a net launcher for the capturing. Leg snare traps employ a looped cord on a hinged perch. When a bald eagle lands on the perch a spring is sprung which tightens a looped cord around the bald eagle’s legs. The net launcher uses three projectiles attached to a large lightweight net. A salmon carcass is used at bait in front of the launcher. A radio-controlled trigger to launch the net is used when an eagle lands next to the bait. In addition to the GPS satellite transmitter installation, researchers attached leg id bands and took measurements including blood and a small feather sample for analysis. To keep the eagle calm during the entire process, a hood covered the bald eagle’s eyes and leather booties protected researchers from the eagle’s talons.
Information about Wheat’s bald eagle migration study and the latest updates on the locations of the bald eagles she is tracking can be found on the Ecology Alaska website.
Social media and education outreach are an important facet of Wheat’s project. Wheat along with Yiwei Wang, graduate student, University of California Santa Cruz and Dr. Taal Levi, wildlife ecologist, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies funded their various Alaska research projects through an innovative Kickstarter fundraising campaign. I highly recommend that you check out the Ecology Alaska website. They are a group of excited and dedicated scientists who do a great job of making science understandable and fun.
I’m really looking forward to telling the story of both the Citizen Science eagle count survey and University of California – Santa Cruz migration research efforts as I work on producing publishable packages about their work.
ABOVE: Adobe Flash is required to view the slideshows of Haines citizen science class students counting bald eagles and of researchers capturing bald eagles. Mobile devices should view the photos in the gallery instead.
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