Behind The Shot: ‘Bald Eagle on Cross’ by Dawn Wilson – Dutch Harbor, Alaska

An adult bald eagle sits on top of a wooden Russian Orthodox grave marker in the Memorial Park Cemetery in Unalaska, Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

Bald Eagle on Cross by Dawn Wilson

More than 600 bald eagles live on the islands of Amaknak and Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. Although eagles live along most of the Alaskan coastline, these two islands have an unusually large population thanks to a healthy fishing industry in Dutch Harbor, the largest commercial fishing port in the U.S. that is located on the southeast side of Amaknak Island.

Dozens of eagles spend much of the day picking scraps from fishing nets and stealing fish from the fish processing plants in Dutch Harbor. Many eagles also spend a lot of time along the Front Beach where Unalaska Cemetery and Memorial Park face Iliuliuk Bay. The cemetery is full of weathered wood grave markers that eagles enjoy as perches to scan the coastline and the meadows for food.
This photo was taken in July, one of the best times of year to visit Dutch Harbor when the meadows and mountainsides are lush with wildflowers. The weather during the summer can be fairly mild with temperatures reaching the upper 60s during the day. Persistent fog and cloudy days coupled with the long hours of daylight provided the ideal conditions to shoot all day long. This particular photo was captured at 2:00 p.m., a time of day usually avoided in more sunny locations.

The cloudy weather, however, can make taking photos of animals with dark and light portions challenging. To overcome this, I increased my ISO and set a wide open aperture to help the camera capture the details of the dark feathers while selecting a fast shutter speed to freeze any action in case the eagle flew off her perch and to avoid overexposing the white feathers, grave marker and sky. Adjustments in Lightroom and Photoshop helped bring out the details in the dark feathers a little further.

While the eagles are comfortable around people in Dutch Harbor, they become a little more skittish on the outskirts of town. I have found it best to use a long lens to photograph the eagles on perches like this to capture the candid shot and to prevent changing their behavior or potentially causing them to fly away. This photo captured all of the elements Dutch Harbor has to offer – wildlife, history, landscape and weather. – Dawn Wilson

Equipment and settings: Nikon D3s, Nikon AF-S 500mm f/4G ED VR II AF Lens, Manfrotto four-section, carbon-fiber tripod, Wimberley Gimbal tripod head; 1/2000th at f/8 – ISO 1000 – manual mode, auto white balance

This image is available as a print here. Dawn Wilson is a freelance photographer, writer and naturalist based in Arvada, Colorado. See more of her fine art, stock and assignment work, purchase prints, and sign up for workshops at Keep up with her blog here and you can follow her at Tumblr and Facebook.