McNary and Columbia National Wildlife Refuges

I just returned from a short visit with our dear friends the Howes in Pasco, Washington.  Steve and I have known each other for a long time and Di and I stop at their lovely home when we travel to Bozeman.  We are always greeted with open arms, a planned menu of food and events and the warmth of an enduring friendship.  Can’t beat it!  They agreed to let me come for a few days and Steve arranged for me to sign on as a volunteer with the McNary NWR so I could travel with them and have legitimate access to areas behind gates.  Steve has volunteered for the refuge for about 4 years and knows his way around the refuge quite well.  I sure enjoyed seeing new terrain, new habitat and meeting new people.

Now that the hunting season is over in the area the birds have returned to the ponds and sloughs.  They still are vastly more skittish than what I know at Ridgefield where the birds get used to cars driving around and will usually hold rather than flush as vehicles get close.  Birds at McNary flushed long before I thought they would and I had to start learning how to photograph from a greater distance.  Steve and I drove and hiked around McNary NWR last Saturday afternoon and again on Monday.  Sunday we drove north to the Columbia NWR and went looking for birds which proved to be low in numbers.

The trip to these two refuges gave me two “life list” birds.  Some may laugh that I am actually keeping track of the birds I see.  I’m not terribly rigorous and usually have to have an advanced bird friend confirm or provide ID but I figure if I’m seeing the birds I might as well write it down. Just a small task in the day of a retired guy.  The trip also provide me with what I call “photograph life birds”.  These are birds that I have seen in the past but for which I have no images in the library.  Again, people may chuckle that I point the camera at a magpie or sparrow but it has become a goal to try to get good, at least decent, images of birds in my library of digital images.  Life birds for me this trip include Greater White-fronted goose (Anser albifrons) and Horned lark (Eremophila alpestris).  Photo life birds included Black-billed magpie (Pica hudsonia) and Western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta).  During our outings we saw many other species including widgeon, great-horned owl, mallard, pintail, shoveler, kestrel, red-tailed hawk, bald eagle, white-crowned sparrow, song sparrow, snow goose, California quail, and mourning dove.  I’m sure there are others that I have not listed.

Click on any of the photos below for an enlarged view.  If you use Chrome as a browser and have the “hover zoom” extension installed you can just hold your mouse over an image to see a much larger image.  I highly recommend Google Chrome for this reason alone.

Greater white-fronted geese

It seems that I spent a lot of time “jump shooting” ducks as they took off.  I ended up with a series of “duck eruption” images.  This sight was common as we drove into view of a pond or walked into an area. The birds would quickly lift off the water and fly to a nearby pond or field and I would hopefully get at least one shot where the birds are sharp.  I regret a lot of the backgrounds in the photos and the light certainly was not ideal for good bird photos much of the time.  I consider the trip to be a great introduction to the area and will hopefully return and be better prepared to be in the right place at the right time.



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Some of the time I felt like I was back at the Bosque del Apache refuge in New Mexico.  There were several thousand snow geese in the area and we would see large flocks in the fields or the air every once in awhile.  The birds are a common sight for residents in the area and the recently installed wind power generators are becoming more and more common.  Backgrounds for photos without the wind generators are fewer and fewer each year.  It’s a mixed emotion for me, for sure.




Another impression I came away with was a renewed appreciation for the adaptability of the birds, especially the raptors.  I saw dozens of kestrels and red-tailed hawks and many bald eagles.  Northern harriers seemed to be every where and, like Ridgefield, were usually 2 lens lengths ahead of me.  These birds are clearly doing well if you judge just by the number of them.  I got a few shots of bald eagles… none that will win any prizes or be published but they do illustrate the habitat and adaptability of the birds.

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The Columbia National Wildlife Refuge was all new to me.  Steve and I explored many of the roads looking for birds.  Not too many around it seems.  Geese and harriers.  We kept looking for a good shot of a Western meadowlark and did not succeed.  I did get shots but they won’t be shown here (or elsewhere).  This wide open refuge is a great mix of columnar basalt canyons, buttes and prairie.  Very interesting place that probably deserves some more time in the future.



The best bird image from the Columbia NWR was one of my “life birds”… the Horned lark (Eremophila alpestris).  This bird is a common sight in the area and as one friend told me is frequently viewed on the grills of cars….ooops.

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The trip was not only an enjoyable visit with good friends who pamper guests with comfort, great food and good conversation but it whet my appetite to return.  I enjoyed meeting many of the staff at the McNary NWR and got introduced to a young manager from the the Conboy NWR near Trout Lake, Washington.  She says that there are cranes at Conboy and invited me to visit.  I believe I will.



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