Communing with My Adopted Eagle Family—one Smith Rock Wildlife Photographer's Story

March 16, 2017

Guest blogger Jack Wills has a special connection to wildlife, and they to him. A self-described "semi-professional" photographer, Jack has decided to focus on them specifically for the last 15 years. The result is an amazing portfolio with images that make you feel a part of his "Animal Kingdom" experience.

screenshot of Jack Wills Photography website

screenshot of Jack Wills Photography website

We were fortunate to run into him hanging out with his bald eagle family here at Smith Rock the other day. In addition to sharing some of his images from the day, he shared his story of what makes the park so special to him as a wildlife photographer.

Silence and Listening Have Its Rewards
by Jack Wills

Smith Rock State Park has long been a place of interest for me, but as Oregon is a land of many beautiful landscape locations, I had not prioritized a trip to this geological marvel. Although I had heard of the park from friends who suggested I consider photographing there,  I had assumed that the park was primarily devoted to rock climbing and possibly landscape photography. 

I was finally persuaded to check it out by my partner-in-nature, Cindy.  She had gone to hike the park while I was photographing in Malheur Wildlife Refuge with a buddy of mine.  She extolled the virtues of the park after she hiked Misery Ridge. 

view of the bridge over the Crooked River at Smith Rock State Park from the  Misery Ridge Trail

view of the bridge over the Crooked River at Smith Rock State Park from the Misery Ridge Trail

bald eagle getting nesting material and a bit of fish at Smith Rock State Park courtesy of Jack Wills Photography

bald eagle getting nesting material and a bit of fish at Smith Rock State Park courtesy of Jack Wills Photography

"Keeping the Eggs Warm" courtesy of Jack Wills Photography

"Keeping the Eggs Warm" courtesy of Jack Wills Photography

On our next visit to the Bend Area, we decided to make a visit to the park together.  I was struck by the natural beauty of the sheer cliffs and was soon struck by the steepness of Misery Ridge.  The park became a frequent destination for hiking as well as a respite from the wetness and cloudiness of the western foothills of the Cascade Mountains during the spring.  We even traveled over Santiam Pass and hiked the trail one New Years day. 

It wasn't until the spring of 2013 that I learned of a unique perspective for photographing a bald eagle nest at Smith Rock State Park.  Cindy and I had passed thenest from a trail below several times, but could not imagine an acceptable way to photograph the eagles.  It wasn't until we visited the Red Chair Gallery in Bend, Oregon that we learned there might be a way to photographically access the eagle nest.  

While interacting with Dorothy Eberhardt at the gallery and discussing her beautiful landscape photographs, she mentioned that George Lepp (a well-known nature photographer, editor for Outdoor Photographer and Canon camera representative) was photographing the bald eagle nest on the rim of the Crooked River canyon at the park.

Immediately my interest was piqued, and as they say,  one thing led to another.  Cindy and I were "hot on the trail" to discover the position to photograph the nest the very next day.  Amazingly to me, we not only found the spot, but we found George Lepp, as well.  George, along with another nature photographer, Rick (Roderick) Edwards, aka "Cheetah Man", were open and willing to share their knowledge and a photographic spot along the rim approximately 200 feet from the eagle nest. 

It was a delightful and exciting experience!  It was also a learning opportunity.  I had recently sold an older 150-500 unstabilized zoom lens because I was dissatisfied with the sharpness of my photographs. I had a Canon 70-200 mm f/2.8 L series lens with which I was very pleased.  It takes very sharp photographs, but it was not appropriate to capture the eagles close up. 

I watched with envy as George Lepp worked his "tools of the trade" to capture brilliant photographs and videos of the eagle nest.  George was using L series 500mm and 800 mm prime lenses along with other sophisticated tools. After a fascinating and pleasant experience with George and Rick,  I left the park exhilarated but frustrated with my lack of a lens adequate for capturing the experience.

In order to address my lens envy, I began to explore the possibility of adding to my photographic tools, specifically my lenses.  After searching the internet, I settled on Canon L series 600 mm f/4 lens (and a 1.4x and 2xtele extenders). After a couple of unsuccessful bidding efforts on eBay, I finally secured these lenses and have not looked back.  

Subsequently, I have taken numerous photographs of the park eagle nest and other wildlife from Smith Rock State Park to Everglades National Park.  Although it was a significant expense, it was worth it. 

The bald eagle nest is not the only wildlife photographic opportunity at the park.  Numerous hawks soar amongst the cliffs of the park, while waterfowl and otters navigate the waters of Crooked River. Deer, lizards, snakes and even cougars are observed in the park.  Photographing these creatures is a challenge, but a fun and rewarding option while visiting the park. 

I have focused on the bald eagle nest because of the uniqueness of the photographic opportunity.  Since I have been photographing the eagles, I have felt highly rewarded by the experience. 

But the eagles are not always active.  I have sat for hours watching the nest without much more than the periodic shifting of the eagle "assigned" to sitting the nest.  Initially, I was frustrated by these gaps in photographic action, but in time, I began to appreciate the opportunity to just be present amidst this magnificent geological phenomenon. 

Being in this enchanting natural environment provided a sense of peace and joy.  I began to look forward to the quiet times.  (I will take this opportunity to suggest to visitors to the park that silence and listening in this natural place have its rewards to those who embrace that experience...including fellow photographers.) 

Despite the long periods of low eagle activity, photographic perseverance has often paid off.  For instance, while seeking another perspective for photographing the eagles, I had a serendipitous experience.  I soon noticed that the eagles frequently landed on a dead tree on the rim. 

On one occasion, an eagle landed on that tree when the afternoon wind was quite brisk.  In one moment, the eagle turned to look at me. Since he was staring into the sun, he used the nictitating membrane to protect its eyes.  The wind, which was behind its head pushed its feathers to form a kind of crown and the result was a Stephen King kind of visage. I was pleased and amused by the photograph. 

"Eagle by Stephen King" courtesy of Jack Wills Photography. Click to go to his website and view larger.

"Eagle by Stephen King" courtesy of Jack Wills Photography. Click to go to his website and view larger.

For those who are interested, that photo is on my website in the Limited Edition Gallery. Eagle photographs from the park are distributed through three galleries: New Wildlife Photos, Eagles, and Limited Edition.

The time photographing the eagles has given me more than photographs.  Sitting on the rim at Smith Rock State Park resulted in a unique sense of communion.  

After four years of winter-spring visits to the rim across from the bald eagle nest,  I feel like a member of the bald eagle family.  I'm certain that they recognize me, even if they don't share the same sentiment.  I hope that I can return many times as I know I still have much to learn about my adopted eagle family."