By Scott Prater
On the morning of March 24, Bill Evans got the call every parent fears. His daughter was involved in a roll-over car crash.
Though she escaped the incident unharmed, the experience left her father shaken.
Weary from 24 hours of intense emotion, the retired master sergeant and 21-year Air Force veteran needed some solitude and a chance to clear his head.
Earlier in the week he had heard of a bald eagle nest at the Fountain Valley School near his home in southern Colorado Springs, so the 50th Space Wing multimedia photographer grabbed his favorite camera, a tripod and some snacks and set out to find the majestic birds.
“I knew the nest was probably on private property so I called the school, obtained permission and set up a meeting with an administrator, Wyp Steenhuis” he said. “When I arrived, she met me and showed me where the nest had been spotted.”
On a cool, sunny spring afternoon, he pulled up under a stand of trees… and waited.
At first he could only see a nest, high up in the trees, but no signs of eagles. Squirrels, rabbits and small birds went about their day in careless fashion.
“Photography is not only my chosen profession, it’s my recreation as well,” he said. “This is what I do when I need to figure things out. Nature can provide an immense amount of sensory input if you allow yourself to simply experience it, and sitting there in the solitude of the day was just what I needed.”
After an hour of waiting, he figured it wasn’t meant to be, but less than 30 minutes later his patience was rewarded. An eagle poked its head up out of the nest, but it’s eyes and beak were all that was visible from his vantage point more than 50 yards and 50 feet below.
The action allowed him to adjust his camera and get a few shots.
“I was starting to think that was all I was going to get,” he said. “If it was meant to be then I’d get it, but I have to admit I would’ve been disappointed if all I got were those nest photos.”
An avid fisherman, outdoor enthusiast and photographer, Evans was in his element. Scenes like this were where he did his best thinking. He could think of no other place he would rather be at that moment, scanning the skies for the elusive shot of a bald eagle.
He had seen them in flight in and around Colorado’s mountains, but he never had a camera available and ready. At other times, he’d gone in search of the bird, only to be disappointed when they never showed or random events spoiled the opportunity.
Two and half hours into his wait, as soon as he thought luck might not be on his side, he noticed the wildlife around him began to stir. Squirrels scurried for cover, sparrows and pigeons fluttered frantically, then a figure began circling high above. Black, huge and ominous.
“The animals around me sensed what was coming,” he said. “The top of the food chain had arrived.”
Finding it difficult to contain his excitement, Evans readied his camera as the bird of prey circled once more and landed in the nest.
“All the preparation in the world doesn’t matter,” he said. “You still need a bit of luck. When the eagle landed, he did so with a prairie dog dangling from his talons. He was still obscured by tree limbs and I don’t know if he was just showing off, but a few seconds later he flew to another tree nearby and that’s when I got a clear view.”
Snapping quickly, he took as many pictures as he could. With no way of knowing how long the key moment would last, he could only hope he had fine tuned his camera to just the right setting.
“I sensed this was a sign,” he said. “After everything I experienced the past few days, the years of hoping I would get this chance, the waiting. Everything seemed to come together in that moment and it was like it was meant to be. Here was my sign that everything was going to work out.”
Dennis Rogers, Evans’ friend and fellow photographer at Schriever, said preparation, training and desire are what made the difference that day.
“He used a 300 millimeter zoom lens and a doubler, so he was, in essence shooting with a 600 mm lens,” Rogers said. “He caught the eagle flying too. You’ve got to use a really fast shutter speed for that. Bill applied a great deal of his photo knowledge to achieve this series of shots, and these shots are more than just usable photos. They’re exceptional.”
Our national bird, the bald eagle, is unique to North America, but sighting one is rare in Colorado. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, only 42 nesting pairs were confirmed in the state as late as 2006. The USFW removed the species from the endangered and threatened list in 2007. Thanks in part to protection programs, the number of nesting pairs has increased 10-fold in the continental U.S. since the 1960s, but the largest concentrations of birds are found in Florida, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Despite their delisting, they are still protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, the Migratory Bird and the Lacey Acts. As symbols of our nation and our way of life, nothing says America like the bald eagle.
Evans still has a hard time believing his luck.
“You can see why our historic leaders chose the bald eagle as the national bird,” he said. “It’s just so majestic. And, it’s really an amazing experience to see it living and hunting.”
He drove home in controlled anticipation, hoping that what he saw from the back of the camera translated into success. Once home, he quickly downloaded the photos and was delighted by the results.
“I took roughly a minute of photos and then it was over,” he said. “But I got it.”