On January 6, 2014 I was alone at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge just north of Vancouver, Washington. It was midday and I had already driven a lap around the 4 mile auto loop known as the “S Unit” at the refuge. It had been a good loop full of interesting photo opportunities. I’d spent about an hour with a large group Hooded Mergansers as males were busy displaying for females at the start of mating season. A Bald Eagle was present and had given me a few opportunities. Canvasback were seen and photographed – not a common event for me at Ridgefield. White-breasted Nuthatch were working the ash forest. Wilson’s Snipe were hunkered into the grasses. American coot were, as usual, common. Red-winged Blackbird were perching on the cattails at the beginning of the auto loop. Great Blue Heron and Great Egret were also in evidence as one expects at Ridgefield. This place is always ripe for birds and it is really a rare event when I leave and don’t find that I’d been given a wonderful and somewhat unique chance to get a photo of a bird that was different and pleasing. Ridgefield NWR always provides something. Today was to be no different.
I visited Ridgefield frequently when we lived in Portland and built a library of bird photos spanning seasons and years. I also kept track of birds that others were seeing and photographing in the area. One bird that was seen fairly frequently by others is the Black Phoebe. I had never seen one but knew what they looked like and had a general knowledge of their calls. I knew they were in the area due to photos posted by others but, as is my luck, my first loop did not provide me a sighting or photo opp. I had gone a short distance into my second lap and was driving slowly by an area filled with cattails and in which one can almost always count on seeing Red-winged Blackbirds. There are some water control structures along the route and these offer an open view into the ponds that is not always present. As I drove past a culvert I caught some movement in the corner of my eye. I backed up and saw the Black Phoebe sitting there. Bingo!
I drive with my camera either out the window and balanced on a beanbag or on my lap. I try to keep the camera dialed into a decent exposure setting so I am mostly prepared for just this type of situation. Here I was with a “life bird” and one that was sitting in a fairly open area of marginal light as it was fly-catching in the warming day. Focus, frame… click, click, click. The bird gave me 10 frames and flew off into dense vegetation. I scanned the images on the back of the camera and was pleased to see a few in which the bird’s head was turned and an eye was visible. The images turned out to be sharp where needed (the bird’s head and eye). I was happy to have the shots. But there’s always something that could be better it seems. I’ve mixed feelings about the blurry branch that cuts across the bird’s tail. It could be removed in Photoshop but I left it feeling that it really did not disturb the image terribly, showed some context for the bird’s environment and would have taxed my limited Photoshop skills to make it look real. Yes, I took the easy but more genuine road.
I have yet to see another Black Phoebe. This bird and I shared 20 seconds of time in life and now I get to look at it and remember the satisfaction of the moment forever. You might say I’m easily pleased and I’d agree. A decent photo of a life bird will always brighten my day.