A day alone in the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge north of Vancouver, Washington always reaps rewards. I tend to start such a day with a cup of coffee as I sit near the entry station listening to birds and other sounds come from the marsh and forest cover of the refuge. I take note of birds flying in and out and begin to glass the birds with binoculars. I’ll check the camera settings, position the beanbag on the window and dial in a rough exposure so I am mostly prepared when a photo presents itself. It always presents itself. Ridgefield never disappoints when it comes to birds. I really can’t think of a time when I left the refuge without at least one nice opportunity to photograph a bird, a raccoon or some scene. The place is rich and is a treat to visit any time of the year – mosquitos and other visitors may color the experience but there are always moments when you can be alone with the place and the critters that frequent it. Watching the sunrise over a marsh full of waterfowl, blackbirds and wrens is hard to beat if you want to begin a calm, zen-like day.
The automobile route of the Ridgefield NWR S Unit is about 4 miles long and you are required to stay in your vehicle much of the year. During a few summer months you can exit your car and walk around. It is during this time that the Kiwa trail is open to visitors and offers a wide variety of habitats and avian opportunities. The refuge is typically quiet with the exception of the train movement on the east side of the refuge. Much of the time in the refuge can be a pretty pure “moment of nature” if you want one.
The refuge is managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service as part of the national network of refuges. As such, activities occur within the refuge. Seasonal waterfowl hunting is allowed. Water levels are regulated. Roads are graded. Vegetation is managed in a minimal way…plantings and weed control. The refuge, like the others, is a busy place. Management is intended to foster habitats to support the wildlife populations that use the area. While there is always debate about what is being done, what should be done or what should NOT be done, the intent is benefit wildlife. Humans are lucky to have access to the area. The value of the refuge is increasing rapidly in my opinion. Housing development on the perimeter has changed the experience and influences the edge vegetation/habitats. I think the development is inevitable and something that I need to come to grips with. I wish there was a nice buffer around the refuge to ease the immediate geographic pressures of houses against native forests and wetlands. That won’t happen now so the value of the refuge goes way up. The refuge is an island of nature in a fragmented landscape. People should recognize and appreciate the treasure they have in their back yard.
I was driving slowly around the loop and making stops when I thought a photo might be possible or when I just wanted to stop and watch, listen and feel the place. At one point I approached a culvert crossing of the road and it looked different to me. It was. Managers had come in with equipment and cleaned the inlet and outlet of the culvert to allow water flow. There was a fairly large pile of what I think was some road gravels that had been pulled out of the water and piled along the road. It was a pile of black sands and gravels and seeds and leaves had begun to accumulate on the surface. There were several Golden-crowned Sparrows hopping around gathering seeds. The light was a fairly bright overcast. I pulled over and parked nearby. As I sat still watching the action, the birds adjusted to my car and me and resumed their work. It’s always work for a bird. Find food, preen and protect your feathers, watch for danger, find a mate… it is nonstop.
I raised the camera onto the bean bag on my window and started following birds as they feasted on the seeds that had been uncovered during the maintenance or which had fallen since the pile was placed. The setting on the dark pile of gravel/sand was different than anything I’d shot before and I still have mixed feelings about it as a stage for a photograph. But the birds were nearby and happy. I took about 100 photos and departed the area. I selected this photo for presentation here because I like the attitude that the bird is showing. It looks confident, alert and a bit brash…almost challenging. Many photographers prefer the mega-birds for photography – the herons, eagles and egrets or geese. I do too but can’t seem to resist a chance to record a small songbird. The energy and small size of these sparrows adds a challenge to the photo work. The result, though, is that once the photo is on the computer monitor I get to take a close look at the beauty of the feathers on the bird and dramatic display of structure around the eye. So often we see birds fly by and they go virtually unnoticed. There’s a bird. Big deal. Seeing a bird fly by and knowing what it is seems to be the next step in appreciating the complexity and dynamics of our birds. Studying, in an informal way, the variety and complexity of feathers on a single bird is not something that most people can or want to do. Me, I enjoy seeing the patterns and variety of feathers and wondering “Why? How?” Some may say I’m curious. Others may say I’m nuts. I think I’m fortunate.