Where eagles, and photographer, dare: Birds are back along upper Fox Valley
By Mike Danahey firstname.lastname@example.org @DanaheyECN January 5, 2014 8:06PM
A photo taken by Chris Mussachio of Algonquin of eagles vying for fish along the Fox River between Carpnetersville and the Dundees this past January. .
Updated: February 7, 2014 6:04AM
Despite frigid temperatures Tuesday morning, Chris Mussachio of Algonquin was up bright and early doing what he likes to do this time a year — heading out to take photos of bald eagles along the Fox River.
“The first eagle picture I ever took was in December 2011 at Buffalo Park in Algonquin. Since then I’ve been in hot pursuit,” Mussachio said.
Mussachio said he started out taking nature and wildlife photos when he was in his teens, “but due to sports activities and girls, it did not go too far.”
Now semi-retired from sales work he did for more than 25 years, Mussachio has his own website — wildsidephotography.zenfolio.com — from which he has sold some of his work.
This fall and winter alone, Mussachio said he’s taken 3,000 to 4,000 shots of the big birds between Algonquin and Elgin. Over the years, he’s also spotted osprey over the Fox and great horned owls down toward Geneva and Batavia.
He mentioned that the first eagles he spotted this season were in late October and that in early December, the birds could be seen flocking together with as many as a dozen in any one spot.
“I don’t have a single best spot, so to say, but I go from the Algonquin dam to the Carpentersville dam, then stay along the river to the Elgin dam,” Mussachio said. “It’s hit or miss as to what kind of action I will see or how many eagles I will find.”
“I think the numbers are up this year for eagle sightings, but they are spread out over a vast area, especially since the water is open in so many areas,” he said. “There are definitely many more juvenile eagles this year, which should mean they will be around for years to come.”
As for getting pictures of the eagles, Mussachio said patience is a key and that camera phones are not the best for the task.
“We constantly watch people get out of their cars with their camera phones and go up to the birds as close as possible just to get the shot, without thinking of how they might affect the birds,” he said.
That’s because despite their imposing nature, the eagles can be skittish around people. A camera with a lens is much better than what phones have in order to get the job done.
“And when photographing eagles, I am always looking to use the fastest shutter speed I can get because these birds can sure boogie down the river,” he said. “Another thing I have learned to do over is to be patient and wait for the action to come to me. If I know there are eagles in the area, instead of getting close to them, I set up shop away from them when possible and hope all the action comes my way. Chasing these birds definitely makes them look for other places to go.”
Talking shop a bit, Mussachio said, “I use and have always used Nikon equipment. Actually, since I jumped into the DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) camera arena three years ago, I’ve upgraded a couple of times and have gone through lots of trial and error to figure out what works best — a little costly, but well worth it in the end.”
Mussachio noted that he has waited as long as three hours in the cold and snow for an eagle to end up fishing right in front of him — but also has watched the birds take off and not come back that day. He dresses in layers, keeps hand-warming packets in his coat pockets, wears gloves designed for photographers, and uses a tripod to keep his camera steady.
“It can be tough sometimes, but its all part of the game,” he said.
“We only get three or four months, max, of seeing these eagles in our neck of the woods, so I get out every day for two to four hours, depending on the weather. You have to enjoy them while they are here, and hopefully they will be back next season.”