For me, there is nothing that quite matches purposeful time outdoors with the camera and in the presence of a good friend. My friend Steve Howes and I spent the last few days roaming around several wildlife refuges. Ostensibly, our time was for birding and photography. For me, that’s another way of saying “aimless wandering in favorite places”. Equipped with binoculars, cameras and a spotting scope we set out in a brief period of rainless weather to visit the Ridgefield, Steigerwald and Tualatin National Wildlife Refuges. The relationship I have with Steve has matured over many years and I look forward to time with him and his quick, dry wit. While we share a lot of common professional experiences his background and interests are much different than mine. Years ago we had the good fortune to share our first visits to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge on a cold, January morning as the sun came up over a pond full of Sandhill cranes and Snow geese. It was a spiritual moment for both of us and, I believe, the exact moment when I began the quest to become proficient in bird photography. Steve moved on to volunteer work with the the US Fish and Wildlife Service at the McNary National Wildlife Refuge and has become much more capable as a “birder” than I have. I continue to enjoy the challenge of bird photography and am still trying to learn the basics of bird ID and field notation. We always seem to enjoy our time together as we explore the dynamics of bird migrations and biology. We were both anticipating our time at these Oregon and Washington wildlife refuges.
We began our day with breakfast at a wonderful little cafe, Fuller’s, in downtown Portland. We used to go there from time to time when we worked together downtown. We were happy to see Susie the waitress as we walked in and took seats at the counter. She smiled and came to bring coffee as she asked if we off to go birdwatching again. She must have a remarkable memory because I really don’t think that either Steve or I are notorious enough to have created an indelible memory.
After breakfast we headed to Ridgefield, arriving shortly after sunrise. We got set up in the car and began the loop looking for any bird that might be visible. While we saw about 12 species as we drove, none were suitalble for photographs. No big deal. We entered the ash forest portion of the loop and I paused to check a popular tree cavity to see if an owl might be dozing inside. Not this time but we did find a sleepy racoon. This is a multi-user cavity and points to the value of old trees for providing a variety of habitats for critters.
Just down the road we spotted a couple of Hooded Mergansers. These diving birds tend to be quite skittish. They swim away when they get nervous. Even when I get a clean view of these birds I find it challenging to get a good exposure that does not blow out the white cap of the male. It’s much like a bride’s white dress next to a groom’s black tuxedo… not easy.
My recent posts include photos of the Tundra Swans that are currently using the refuge. Like the male Hooded Merganser, I have many unuseable photos due to poor exposure and blown out whites. I feel quite fortunate that most of my recent shots of these large birds seem to be properly exposed (or nearly so). I’m also quite happy that the birds are sharp in the frame since I have other images where the exposure is good but the birds are blurred due to either their movement or the the camera’s. Nobody ever said this was easy. We sat at one location for quite awhile as swans flew between ponds or arrived for the day. The posture of these approaching swans reminds me of Sandhill Cranes as they glide in for a landing… landing gear down and full flaps. I think that having a bit of the tree canopy in the frame helps orient a viewer of the image and provides a bit of scale. I prefer shots of birds in flight when they have some context of their environment.
Another species that I see frequently at Ridgefield is the American Kestrel. These birds are also pretty wary most of the time and I have had many attempts to get close thwarted due to my clumsiness or pushing the bird to far for its comfort. I have a few shots of kestrel in flight and many of them sitting on their favorite perch… a sign posted to keep people from the area behind it. I was really happy to see a kestrel sitting on a natural perch even if it is teasel and the light was not spectacular. Birds on natural perches are, in my opinion, just much more pleasing. I was grateful that this kestrel let us get close enough for a few shots. I’m also grateful for the large file size from the Nikon D800 which allows significant cropping as was done in this photo.
We made a total of 3 laps at Ridgefield and headed out to Steigerwald National Wildlife Refuge near Washougal, Washington. It was calm and cool/cold at Ridgefield. When we got to Steigerwald the wind was screaming and it was still cold. We parked and set off on a walk to the distant forest and ponds hoping that the commonly seen male Northern Harrier and other notable birds were in position to be seen. We walked far enough to see the few mallards on a pond and decided that we’d done enough. It was easier walking back toward the car with the wind at our backs and we were enjoying the time and just talking casually. About 50-100 yards from the parking lot the trail goes through a short section of shrubs that burned up a few years ago. We entered the section and I was looking west when I heard Steve stop and say “OWL”. I followed his gaze and saw a large owl sitting on a branch looking back. Steve said “long-eared owl” but I hardly heard him due the blood thumping in my ears. I was chanting “focus on the eyes; get the exposure”. I took about 3 shots and realized that I had the camera set to shoot with a restricted sensor size and I was not getting the whole bird in the frame. YIKES. I quickly set the camera to full frame and shot a few more frames as the owl rotated its head around. It finally flew to the other side of the trail so that it was backlit and more concealed by the brush. It was still remarkably closewhen we relocated it so I manually focused on the eyes and shot some more. I bumped the exposure compensation up just as it flew again and landed near by and even deeper in the brush. I crawled into the thicket and took two frames but decided that it was a lost cause and backed out to the trail. We were standing there talking quietly when another photographer came toward us. We pointed the bird out to him and wished him well as we left for our car. Of course the male harrier was flying overhead as we walked. 5 shots of that bird and all I got was its backside… not good.
The Long-eared Owl is notorious for being seen (poorly) in heavy brush or vegetation. It is a night hunter and to see it in the open during daylight was remarkable. Our sighting was the first for both Steve and me so we considered it a gift and were amazed that we actually came away with a good photo or two. BINGO. As my friend Keith used to say, “every once in awhile even a blind hog finds an acorn”. Dianne prefers “good luck for good people”. Both probably apply to some degree.
The next day we walked several miles around the Jackson Bottom Wetlands in Hillsboro, Oregon. We saw 31 species of birds but none that were really suitable for photography. It was great to just be out there in decent weather and enjoying the setting and the occassional person(s) we would encounter. As we were about to leave for home I stopped at the feeder station near the visitor center and took a few shots of a Black-capped Chickadee… adorable sells.
Once again, time with Steve and the birds proved to be a bit of a cathartic experience. I looked back on his visit and realized that I had not been overwhelmed with emotions of our recent personal losses and that being outdoors in the wind and cold/cool temperatures was a gift. I’m grateful.