For any wildlife photographer visiting Lock & Dam No. 14 for the first time in search of the ‘killer Bald Eagle shot’, I thought I would share my views and observations in this blog to help prepare you for your visit and to maybe help manage your expectations.
Location and Timing
Lock and Dam No. 14 is located near LeClaire on the Upper Mississippi River above Davenport, in Iowa. The lock is on the Iowa side of the river and is 110 feet wide by 600 feet long. Lock and Dam No. 14 woodland preserve provides an important habitat for wintering Bald Eagles, which can be usually seen here in good numbers during the coldest weeks (10-30 raptors active throughout the day).
This is a great facility with a solid platform about 6’ above water level built for photography and bird-watching. The platform is a wooden construction about 150 yards long and is on the West bank, directly down river from the lock. It has a good protective metal hand rail. There is a parking lot close by with very basic but welcome public restrooms/toilets. There is also about 100 yards of riverbank and a boat ramp area to one side that are also options, but the snowy terrain can be a bit treacherous so walk carefully.
Although the platform/walkway sounds large, it can soon fill up with dozens of photographers and their large tripods, during the prime Bald Eagle weekends (late January through February).
The Eagles choose this particular location because during the winter freeze, there is ‘open water’ (not frozen) just down river from the dam and the fish that cascade over the dam are sometimes hurt or stunned, making the catch a little easier. There are also many tall trees along the river bank where the Eagles will watch for fish, roost and take their catch to eat. They stay in this location until the weather warms and they start to display signs of mating rituals on the thermals and then move on to their warmer weather locales.
Early morning photography is challenging as the sun will rise from the opposite bank, directly into your face/lens. Even though the Eagles will be active, getting a good image in the morning is not easy. In my experience, the best time for eagle photography from the platform is from 14:00 through 16:30. Eagle fishing activity is usually good at this time too.
The other significant factor to consider is wind direction. Eagles take off into the wind (the same as aircraft) and especially with a fish in their talons. It is therefore desirable to have the wind on your back (coming from the West), otherwise you will only get ‘bum shots’.
Some patience is needed, as there is not constant action at Lock & Dam No. 14, but it is steady with occasional periods of explosive competitions for a fish between multiple raptors. Many photographers leave for a lunch break, but be warned, my best sequence was taken at 12:30 when I was alone on the platform, so be mindful what you may miss, just for the sake of that hotdog ! I bring my thermos and pack my lunch and snacks, so I cannot really advise on nearby food options, but I believe I heard some discussion about limited food vendors in the car park area. I didn’t see these, so it may just be during certain days/time periods?
It is likely that you will see Eagle fishing activity both close to the bank and 150 yards out. I would recommend having a long lens set up on a tripod and a 200-300mm easily accessible for the explosive close up action. There are likely to be several eagles flying back across the platform/parking lot to the trees with a fish tucked up under their tail feathers, so also watch out for those opportunities (image below). I managed to capture several roosting images of the eagles in the tall trees while standing in the parking lot area.
During January & February in LeClaire on the river’s edge, it will be VERY COLD.
Ensure that you dress for the extreme cold with excellent footwear and multiple layers of clothing. A balaclava or ski mask with a beanie on top is strongly recommended as the wind is brutal. There is no shelter and that wind can be a constant challenge. I was dressed for deep winter, but I still had some face chapping and felt the cold. Using hand and foot warmers allowed me to last the full day.
Although there are two hotels close to Lock and Dam No. 14, they had poor reviews. I chose to stay at a Marriott Courtyard in Davenport just a few miles away. I was pleased with the usual amenities with a good bed, very friendly staff, the bistro restaurant, and a hot bath to warm up after the long cold days.
Overall, the Eagle photographic opportunities here are the best I have found for the winter fishing shots - anywhere. I rate it better than Scotland and Finland where I have also spent time photographing Eagles. I will definitely be making future visits again to Lock and Dam No. 14 when the Eagles return in the winter of 2020.