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Everyday Eagles: The Flip Side of a National Symbol

Wet, bedraggled, dirty. These are not adjectives commonly associated with the American bald eagle. For German wildlife photographer Klaus Nigge, that is precisely the point. A long-time admirer of the eagle, Nigge wanted to show the flip-side of a national symbol most often experienced from a reverential distance.

To tell this alternate tale, Nigge needed an environment where the living is anything but easy. “I found the perfect solution for this,” Nigge says of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, where precipitation—rain and snow—is a constant. Here, eagles eke out an existence squarely on the ground—living an everyday life full of highs and lows, just like you and I.

“The waters around the Aleutians are very rich in fish naturally, so that makes [for] good breeding territories. And in wintertime, the sea is never frozen,” Nigge explains. Cast-offs from local fishermen and tourists alike make for easy pickings for the eagles, who are natural scavengers. “Sea eagles very much like to feed on carcasses,” Nigge says, “So if it’s easy for them to find something instead of using the energy to hunt, they do it.”

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A bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) stands on the ice after a rainfall in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. Photograph by Klaus Nigge

As a result, Nigge estimates there are more eagles in the Aleutians than anywhere in the world. Habituated to this cycle of feeding and scavenging, these eagles are also very used to people. All perfect elements for an in-depth character study—a “home story,” as Nigge puts it.

Befriending local fishermen in Dutch Harbor, Nigge spent time on the ground—on his belly— observing the eagles’ behaviors around the fishing nets. He also identified some of the eagles’ natural gathering spots where he used some of his own enticements in the form of frozen fish. Nigge let the eagles decide how close they wanted to get, careful not to force their approach. This eye-to-eye contact created an intimacy that is central to the message he wanted to convey.

“I know as a biologist that everything that they do is somehow driven by instinct, but nevertheless after a while I just claim that some of them my are my friends.”

Klaus Nigge’s photographs of bald eagles are featured in the January issue of National Geographic. Follow Nigge on his website.

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