In this June 23, 2014 photo, Irene Cannon looks at the top of tree lines for bald eagles at the Carolina Catfish ponds in Ayden, N.C. Cannon, a former Pitt County teacher, spends retirement chasing and taking pictures of eagles. (AP Photo/The Daily Reflector, Aileen Devlin)
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Aileen Devlin

In this June 23, 2014 photo, Irene Cannon looks at the top of tree lines for bald eagles at the Carolina Catfish ponds in Ayden, N.C. Cannon, a former Pitt County teacher, spends retirement chasing and taking pictures of eagles. (AP Photo/The Daily Reflector, Aileen Devlin)

Ex-teacher starts new career picturing eagles

The (Greenville) Daily Reflector

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GREENVILLE — Irene Cannon scanned the treeline before raising her camera.

The shutter fired rapidly in a series of soft clicks before she lowered it again.

“Did you see that one?” she said with a smile.

It was a near 90-degree day as Cannon waded through knee-high grass toward a line of trees where large, dark, feathered shapes waited.

A retired Ayden-Grifton teacher with 30 years of service, Cannon, 51, now spends her time admiring and chasing a creature that many people don’t see in a lifetime — one that represents a nation.

Driving with practiced ease around sharp curves on narrow roads, Cannon headed around the block from her home in Ayden to her favorite place to take photos.

Cannon called it going around the block, but her block is quite a bit bigger than most.

“You could call it ‘around the country block,’” she said, laughing.

Cannon’s country block includes farm land, homes on large lots, wooded areas and a catfish farm where large vultures, gray herons and bald eagles make their home.

Pulling into a gravel drive fronting three large, man-made ponds full of catfish, Cannon hefted her Nikon DSLR camera and started scanning the sky and the tree lines on three sides of the ponds.

“There’s one!” Cannon said, pointing toward a pair of dark wings spread wide across the blue sky, flapping slowly as it gained altitude toward two taller trees.

“You can tell which are eagles and which are buzzards by the way they move their wings,” Cannon said. “The buzzards glide, the eagles flap their wings more.”

The bald eagles, one of the nation’s protected species, are Cannon’s favorite subject to shoot.

“Because it’s a challenge,” Cannon said. “They’re so rare and they’re not easy to catch good photos of. They’ll fly away if you get too close and they’re fast.”

Even with her almost uncanny eagle-eye ability to spot the birds — both the white-headed mature adults and the brown speckled juvenile bald eagles — taking photos of the large birds is challenging, especially for a self-taught, nonprofessional, Cannon said.

It’s that elusive attitude and a sincere appreciation for the birds of prey that makes the bald eagles attractive subjects for Cannon.

N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission Naturalist Jeff Marcus has called the catfish farm in Cannon’s country block one of the largest concentrations of bald eagles he knows of in North Carolina, due most likely to the abundance of food and large trees for roosting.

Just walking with Cannon around the ponds is an educational experience. She can tell the bird’s habits and mannerisms, general ages and gender.

“The males have that black ring around their eyes, a longer beak and are usually smaller,” Cannon said. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell until you take a closer look at the photos.”

Surrounded by family photos and more of her own pictures of nearby wildlife, Cannon showed off an album full of newspaper clippings — all of them her shots.

Cannon has been submitting her nature photos to The Daily Reflector since about 2011, beginning with a photo of a doe in her yard. Raccoons, possums, deer, squirrels, foxes, birds of prey and smaller birds, butterflies and other insects are all Cannon’s neighbors and photography subjects, the best of which she posts to Facebook.

The photos that get the most attention on Facebook usually are the ones Cannon said she submits to the newspaper, where her work has attracted attention.

On Facebook, Cannon has a following, with people praising her photos and asking her where she’s able to get such great shots of the rare birds or other wildlife she neighbors with. Cannon said she gets requests to take photos frequently, even for formal occasions like weddings.

“I told them no,” she said. “I’m not a professional. That’s too much pressure. What if I mess up?”

Wildlife groups also have asked her to join, but for Cannon, photography is an enjoyable pastime and nothing more, at least for now.

Entirely self taught, Cannon said she buys equipment and sometimes buys a book to go along with the new piece, but generally teaches herself how to operate everything and to shoot in different conditions.

“I just bought a flash,” Cannon said. “I don’t use it often yet.”

Cannon and husband of 18 years, Rudy, did not realize they lived so closely to dozens of rare raptors until Rudy was driving down the road one day and stopped, struck by the size of the birds swooping out over the ponds.

“He just saw them one day and started going out there with binoculars from then on,” Cannon said. “Then one day he just started taking me and we would just go out and watch them. It wasn’t until later that I brought my camera.”

Now Cannon and her husband go out to watch and photograph the eagles several times each week.

“Sometimes, depending on what we have going on, I’ll be out there every day,” Cannon said.

And there’s no bad time to see the eagles, Cannon said, whether it’s morning, afternoon or evening or if it’s spring, summer, fall or winter.

“I can almost always see them,” Cannon said. “Sometimes they’re more active than other times.”

But Cannon also is cautious and respectful of her rare and powerful neighbors, treading carefully so as not to disturb the birds too much and keeping a distance.

“You don’t want to scare them off if you’d like to get good photos or see them really well,” Cannon said. “They’ll fly away if you get too close or make too much noise.”

Cannon was a film loyalist until a trip to California and one ruined roll of film pushed her to digital. Now she’s invested thousands in several lenses and other equipment to take advantage of her opportunities for great shots.

Those opportunities include Cannon’s extensive travels with Rudy. From every Canadian province but one, to all 50 states, to Australia, Cannon and her husband have wandering hearts.

Puffins in Alaska, kangaroos in Australia — Cannon said each place has resulted in favorite photos or subjects. She and Rudy usually plan their next trip on the way home. The next stop, Cannon said, is England.

But even with their world travels, Cannon said she and Rudy enjoy spending time outside their home with their two cats, Little Bit and Cody, and all manner of wild neighbors.

From feeding foxes and raccoons at the picnic table to watching hummingbirds and other colorful birds at the feeders in the yard, Cannon said spending time outdoors is a big part of the couple’s life, but the eagles are their favorites.

“It’s hard not to enjoy it,” she said. “So few people get to see them in person. Maybe in zoos, but not free like this.”