Birding Exploits

Birding Exploits
24 May, 2013
Ridgefield NWR, Washington
It’s been a long while since I’ve made time to venture up to Ridgefield to commune with the wildlife. I got up at 5:30 AM and the sun was already up. I have an urgency when it comes to birding: must be there at sunrise or sunset, and avoid other humans at all costs (not counting friends, of course). So when I’m crossing the I-5 bridge over the Columbia and Mt. Hood is shining with pink light, I feel that I’m too late.
I turned onto the dirt road leading down the steep rutted hill to the refuge, and crossed the single-lane wooden bridge leading to the entrance. I have a buddy who works as a ranger in the refuge, and, to my delight, his was the only vehicle in the parking area! He said, “You haven’t been here in a while. You’re up so early!” Ha!
It was a perfect morning for photos, the sun wasn’t too bright yet, and was lighting up the side of the trees I preferred to photograph.
The place was brimming with birds, and although my buddy listed 60 for his trek that day, I tend to list only the most unusual ones, my favorites (I leave out most sparrows, blackbirds, crows, and coots [although I love them all]). I got 16 unusual and beloved birds on my list that morning. Plus, frogs, muskrats, and humongous slugs. Okay, yes, I’m a freak.
My buddy told me that there were a couple of baby owls around, so that was certainly on my mind as I surveyed the awakening landscape.
The marsh wrens were especially cooperative that morning, and with some patience, I was able to get a few shots. They love to tease and hide, so I was pretty lucky. I love the sun shining on this guy’s beak. Happy bird.
This little marsh wren is still sleepy and in danger of falling back to sleep as he soaks in some morning rays.

As I made my way through the refuge, something in this tree caught my eye. It didn’t look quite right. At first I thought it was a damaged limb, then I thought it was a freakishly shaped owl. I stopped underneath it and saw this hawk drying its wings. Something about the geometrical quirkiness appeals to me.

I’m a sucker for wood ducks. Aside from their brilliant plumage, there’s something about waterfowl that like to sit in trees.

Okay, okay. You want to see the photo of the baby owl, right? Now, I must warn you, I am an amateur photographer who is still struggling with exposure. I have lots of patience though, so was finally able to get a decent shot of this little one. It’s pretty big for a baby great horned owl, but was still completely covered in downy feathers. It’s hard to judge these things from the ground, but I estimate it was about ten inches tall. The mother, a huge owl, sat in the crook of the tree, keeping watch over its baby. Good thing too since a young bald eagle was just a few trees over. That eagle was probably in its second year: its white head and tail still spotted with brown.
And another shot of a different baby great horned owl from the previous year at Ridgefield. Same area of the refuge, maybe even sitting in the same tree.
baby great horned owl

There’s something about reflection in water, especially very still water, that photographers love. I’m no exception. This is a cinnamon teal hiding while half asleep.

I love swallows, especially tree swallows. The bright blue and white plumage is so striking, and their baseline song so un-song-like. At the right time of year, if you are lucky enough to be near dozens of these birds, you’ll be treated to what sounds like hundreds of electrical wire-type sounds. This is one of the songs of the tree swallow. I spotted this on making trips back and forth to this hole in the tree, and couldn’t resist taking the time to let it adapt to me. I wanted its picture. These are the only swallows I’ve had any sort of success photographing in a sitting position. Swallows like to fly! A lot. I’ve had experiences of standing very still in a field and they will make low circles around me. They’re very interactive if you let them be. I’m convinced this one was either feeding or protecting babies inside the hole. I kept my distance and managed to get this shot.

Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, Washington
January 2009
I’ve been going through old photos from my treks to Ridgefield, and will try to post them from time to time. I apologize for the out-of-focus shots, but the birds are so beautiful and hard to photograph, I’m posting them anyway. Enjoy.

This beauty is a Sora, an elusive wetlands bird. I often hear them moving around in the reeds, but seldom get to see one. They are quick and darty. I hardly breathed as I waited and waited for this Sora to come out. It was worth it. I was able to snap dozens of shots.
Sora 2

Call me weird, but, I love tail feathers, and the expression on a bird’s face when I get a shot of them from behind. This sora has a very pretty butt, don’t you think?
Sora 9

This bright yellow bird is a yellowthroat. I have spent years trying to capture a really good shot of one of these little birds, but they’re flitty, and I mean really flitty. And they like to hide while they’re flitting. I don’t know how they do it. Of course they flit from bush to bush, but they also flit within bushes. It was total luck that this one stayed put the extra second it took me to semi-focus on it.
yellow bird, yellowthroat
It’s oxymoronic, don’t you think, that they try to hide behind their black mask?

Ring-necked Ducks aren’t that unusual, but it is challenging to get close enough to snap a shot. They tend to swim away the second I think about taking their picture. Why ring-necked? Why not ring-billed? I’m sure there’s a ring of some kind around their necks, but I’ve never seen one. This is one of my favorite water birds. Their colors are striking, and I’m a sucker for any bird with a blue beak. Add the pointy head and golden eye and this bird is a winner.
Duck, ring-necked 2

Antelope Island and Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge
July 18 (my birthday), 2012
This is a shot from atop the highest point on Antelope Island looking back over the causeway to the mainland. The Great Salt Lake is vast and somewhat stinky. It’s the brine shrimp that give it its special aroma. They cling to the shoreline, thick and pink, and stinky, yes.
One of my favorite parts of our cross-country trip was spending the better part of a day birding on the island or nearby. The weather was ideal and there were almost no people there besides us. Our car was the only one in the parking lot! Don’t question good fortune.
The Great Salt Lake

Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge is 76,000 acres of bird heaven. Located on the northeast corner of Salt Lake, wildlife is safe from human harm here. I’ll be back.

White-faced Ibises were everywhere, and displayed not only their unique look, but their quirky behavior as well.

American Avocets are one of my favorite birds. Their colors and shape are so intriguing, and their interaction with each other seems synchronized at times.

The Black-necked Stilts weren’t as abundant, but a few did make an appearance long enough for me to snap a some shots.

The bison are huge in Utah. (This creature is not a buffalo, by the way.) We found about a dozen or so roaming Antelope Island on the Great Salt lake. We’ve had a few amazing encounters with bison on our travels. The ones we got close enough to photograph on Antelope Island seemed docile enough, but experience tells us to take care. It’s all in the eyes, and the angle of their heads. The Great Salt Lake is in the background. And yes, this is a real animal, not a plastic one.
Yes, I know how this looks. It is amazing, isn’t it? But it’s no laughing matter when you’re close in.
And this one, bringing depth and majesty to the Utah scenery.

This is a pronghorn. (Not an antelope.) And yes, I think it needs to be renamed Pronghorn Island. They’re one of my favorite creatures. I’m convinced they have paranormal abilities: able to grow and shrink, changing shape when you blink. When you’re close, they are huge.

Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge
January-March 2009
I know, it was a long time ago, but bird photos are timeless. Here are some of my favs:

Okay, okay, I know these aren’t birds. But I spotted these guys at Ridgefield and felt very lucky to get some shots of them feeding. First: the river otters. I got to the site very early in the morning, and
was the only one there. I spotted four river otters swimming together, obviously sharing a purpose. They were headed straight for a culvert that led to another body of water. They slipped through, obviously heading for a well-known feeding area. They remind me of my puppies going through the dog door to the back yard.
Otters, river
I made a mad dash for the other side, just as I saw four otter tails slip below the surface. I got to the other side seconds before they did, and was able to set up my camera undetected. They were hunting, and to my delight, I was able to get some shots of their kill.
Otter, river 17
Otter, river 15
These photos tell the story, but they don’t include the moaning and growling that came from the otters’ mouths as they munched the heads off these yummy fish. I heard the bones crush in their mouths, and witnessed the wild abandon of their hunting ritual. I’ll never forget it.
I entered the first shot in a photo contest and won an honorable mention. I was pretty pleased since I am purely amateur and was competing against some heavy hitter nature photographers. Maybe I should have entered the photo with the otter’s eyes open. It’s more clear. But I just love the first photo because of the emotion the otter is showing. Pure enjoyment and satisfaction.
Otter, river 33

Raccoons are common around my neighborhood. In fact, I’ve gotten photos of them mating on my roof! But there’s something special about spotting creatures in the wild, especially with a vole hanging out of their mouth! Just like the river otters, these guys were traveling in a pack of four. They hunted like the otters did, with a single purpose, seemingly flushing out their breakfast as a team. I know they were thinking, “Easy as shooting fish in a barrel.”
Racoon 10
Racoons 7
Notice the one standing behind the other two. I suspect there were two adults and two big babies in the family. “Where’s my breakfast?”
Racoons 13

These next two shots are of a juvenile golden eagle! I was unbelievably lucky not only to spot this majestic bird, but to get close enough to get a shot of its face, and then its impressive talons as it took off. I was very still so didn’t feel that I’d done anything to flush it out (one of the big no-nos in the birding world).
Eagle, golden baby 19
Eagle, golden baby 14

This pretty little thing is a Ruby Crowned Kinglet. One of my absolutely favorite birds, it is a special treat to see the flash of bright red on the top of its head, and takes lots of patience to capture it in a photo.
Kinglet, ruby-crowned 2
Kinglet, ruby-crowned 5
I regularly see these guys at my backyard suet feeders, but it doesn’t take away the joy of spotting them in a more wild setting like on the Kiwa Trail at Ridgefield.

Ocean Shores and the Snowy Owl

March 2012: I love photographing birds. I love going to places where birds socialize, hide, feed, and play. In fact, it would be unthinkable to go to the shore, wetlands, or into the woods without my binoculars and camera, various lenses, and tripod or unipod.
It’s a hobby, not like music or writing. I acknowledge my lack of technique as a photographer, but I like to believe that my bird photos come from a personal and unique vantage point. But if it doesn’t come across like that, it doesn’t bother me at all. I don’t mind living under a false sense of wonder.
I simply love to do it.
This was a special winter for birding. I did research and my partner and I made special trips to see both the snowy owl (we saw eight!) and the snow bunting. We struck gold both times. Heaven.
The snowy owl has been on my life list since I can recall, way before I had a life list to keep track of. The hike on the sand was well worth seeing these majestic and quirky birds in person. Their faces remind me of the Joker in Batman. Their mouths are in a perpetual grin!
cropped snowy owl</a>a>

ocean shores 070
ocean shores 069
This snowy owl was half asleep as it sunned itself on the beach at Ocean Shores, Washington. Again, don’t forget that I’m only an amateur photographer. Although I’ve seen really exceptional pictures of these birds, I’m pretty pleased with getting these at all.
ocean shores 051

The drive from Portland was about two and a half hours, and the hike along the soft sand of the beach was about two miles long. We were lucky to have done it on our days off without getting rained on, or blown to the ground from the winds. It’s pretty wild out there on that spit.
The owls are unbelievably beautiful. Their heads really do turn almost all the way around! Lots of people were there on the beach to see these rare visitors, and most of them were respectful and awestruck. One guy though….well, he just got right up to the owls to snap his picture and flushed them off of their logs. Selfish guy. The only good thing was that I got to see them fly. So silent and smooth.
It was a prime birding day.

February 2012 Sauvie Island: the Albino House Sparrow and the Snow Bunting

The search for the snow bunting was a little more difficult, but was eventually found on the north side of Portland airport. But before I found it there, my partner and I searched several other sites including Sauvie Island. It’s about twenty minutes out of Portland and is surrounded by both the Willamette and Columbia Rivers, and on a clear day, boasts views of Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Hood, Mt, Adams, and even on occasion, Mt. Rainier. It’s a great birding spot.
I was badly fooled by a bunting-sized bird, almost totally white, that was hanging with a flock of sparrows.
It turned out to be an albino house sparrow. (This is a dreadful photo, but the only one I’m liable to get of this rare bird, which, to me, makes it great.) I was only slightly disappointed; the albino was the first I’d ever seen. It was pretty cool. But it did make my heart leap thinking I’d spotted the snow bunting.
There are sites online that give specific directions to where rare bird sightings have happened, and in order to see the rare snow bunting, I used one of the sites to find one. You can see how similar the albino house sparrow is to this snow bunting. It’s sitting on some ugly fencing surrounding the Portland Airport, but the sighting was so exciting, I didn’t give a hoot. I was very careful to keep my distance, hence the poor quality of the shot. Sorry. (I’ll have to include some of my better shots soon to make up for this.) But again, it was probably the only time I’d see a snow bunting.
Even with specific directions to where rare birds might be, there’s no guarantee, and it still takes a sharp eye and a still mind to find one. Luckily, my partner is an excellent bird spotter, and helped find this snow bunting. It was far in the distance and at first spotting, sat on the parking lot. It looked like it was a tiny bit of fuzz about an eighth of an inch long. I used my 300 lens and a tripod to get this blurry shot.

Canadian birding
This little one is a Saw-whet Owl.
saw whet owl
We were in British Columbia on a birding trail, admiring the usual suspects, when up ahead we saw several people with cameras attached to enormous lenses. Enormous isn’t quite the word, they’re gargantuan. They have to tote the lenses along the trail in strollers or make-shift rolling devices, they’re just too heavy to carry. I don’t really know how they manage to lift them onto a tripod. Anyway, these people were really pleased with themselves for some reason. We couldn’t figure out what it was they were looking at.
Then one of them pointed up and we saw this sweet owl. What a great find! We would have walked right under it without their help.
Owls seem to be able to sleep with their eyes open. It was only about six inches tall, if that. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m an owl freak. The first Saw-whet Owl I saw was situated in a tiny whole in a tree. That was in Colorado.

Western Snipes are just amazing birds. I seem to have very good luck finding them on the trail. This one ogled me for several minutes until I moved along.
They also like to sit in trees.
snipe in tree
These birds soar unbelievably high and perform acts of amazing daring. They dive a hundred feet or more when they are hunting, creating a mysterious “whizz” as they move through space. They also move stealthily through the wetlands and hang with rails and sora. On my top ten list of birds to watch. I spotted this one at the Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge, one of my favorite places to find cool birds.


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