Immediately after family Christmas, I packed myself and my photo gear up and wandered off to join Aaron Baggenstos' Bald Eagles of the Pacific Northwest workshop. I've been out with Aaron once before, to Mount Rainier in 2015, and had been trying to schedule an eagle workshop with him ever since (actually, I'd been trying to get the eagle workshop for some time before that, but working it into our family Christmas and getting into one that wasn't full took a few tries).
Aaron's tours aren't like other workshops I go on. They are targeted, goal-oriented trips with the intent of getting (at minimum the opportunity to take) iconic shots. They are all-inclusive. Lodging, transportation (once you get to the hotel near the airport), food, snacks -- Aaron is in charge of paying for everything. Convenient, but it removes the possibility of you lowering the workshop price by staying somewhere cheaper (like in an RV). They evolve, as Aaron (and his assistants and guides) learn new locations and techniques. The Eagle workshop is small, limited to two groups of six seats. We end up with five photographers after cancellations and become a single group (seven, including Aaron and Loren his assistant). Three of the other workshop participants are pretty serious wildlife photographers, we have one newbie, and we have me. I've spent some time doing wildlife, and more time than I care to admit working on birds in flight (BIF), but I'm more a macro and landscape guy.
Practically speaking, this is a three day shoot, all in the Skagit Valley region of NW Washington. The first morning is up early to drive from SeaTac to Skagit. We're on the river by about 8am, and that sets the tone for each morning: up early, suit up, and get on the river. The first day it's snowing. The other two it's raining, pretty hard. I discover my Force Five jacket from Duluth is not, as claimed, waterproof. It's good for two hours of decently hard rain, but not three. Bummer. But toe and hand warmers make up for a lot, and an extra layer does wonders, even if damp.
We motor a ways up the river and settle into a spot. Here is where Aaron's prep and careful selection of guides pays off. Wayne, our guide, has modified a doggy ball-chucker to throw ... frozen herring. And so he brings with him a couple of decomposing salmon to drop at specific locations on the shore and a bucket of frozen herring to toss. By maneuver the boat into specific locations in relationship to the birds, we can get tens of chances to shoot birds coming in for the fish, enabling attempts at sharp, blurry background, tail dragging, water splashing, fish in talons, etc. The rotting salmon go on shore for pictures of birds fighting over tidbits.
The first day I shoot 3300 images on the river, and another 700 or so in the Skagit River valley. The next two days are only about 1000 each day, though, so clearly I've learned something on that first day.
Besides the river, there are field locations looking for large flocks of snow geese (as many as 7000 or more birds in a flock can be quite a sight taking off together); eagles nesting; eagles, swans, and snow geese flying; a barn owl; a flock of red-winged blackbirds; shorebirds (including a great blue heron), and more.