Welcome to this week’s challenges at not only Ridgefield but also Tualatin River NWR, near Tualatin, Oregon.
I arrived at the Ridgefield River “S” Unit just after sun up. It was cool, dark, cloudy, foggy, and drizzly. Not great weather for wildlife photography but the forecast said this stuff would go away by afternoon.
I stopped and talked with Barry, one of the refuge volunteers for a few minutes. Barry is very knowledgeable about the refuge and more than once, he has directed me to birds that I probably never would have known were there.
Back in April of this year, he told me about a Euarasian Green-winged Teal that was seen in the area near post #6, in the marshy wetlands to the left of the road. Where the “regular” Green-winged Teal males have a vertical white stripe by the shoulder, this one has a horizontal white stripe. Here’s the shot from last April.
[Please click on the small photos in the article to display a larger version. Thanks]
I never saw this bird again after taking this shot.
Barry again today, directed me toward a rare species on the refuge–the Black Phoebe. My bird guide shows the range of this bird limited to southwest Oregon and southward. It is the only black & white flycatcher in North America. Barry directed me to post #4, by the hunter’s gate. By the time I got there it was raining and still quite dark. I pulled up by the left side of the gate, made sure my flash was ready and that I was in M mode, pulled out my Ipod and played the Black Phoebe call; Barry told me the bird reacts to the call. Immediately, the bird pops up on a branch, 25-30 feet in front of me–certainly not the closest branch I would have liked! He stays there long enough to get just 6 shots off. The RAW file came out dark, noisy and not in perfect focus, so I really had to work this one in post processing to get it even passable. At least you can tell that it is a Black Phoebe!
Had it not been for my flash, I’m almost certain I wouldn’t have gotten the shot. I didn’t see this bird again. I will keep checking for this bird on future visits!
By now it is really raining steadily. I even have to pull in my bean bags and roll up the windows–too much water is getting in the truck. About 15 minutes later I am rounding the left turn corner past post #10. This is where there are cattails on the left and where I’ve shot wrens and sparrows in recent visits. But on the right is water where there are some dead snags that pop up out of the water and is a favorite spot for cormorants to dry their feathers and just hang out. And that is what I see–a Double-crested Cormorant perched on one of the dead snags that protrude 15-20 feet out into the water from shore, and just a few feet above the water. I stop the truck at a spot where just the middle of the neck up is visible through the brush since I want to take what shots I can before risking flushing him. Again, I’m using flash as it is just too dark without it. Here’s a shot from this vantage point.
Due to the lack of light, this shot (and many of today’s shots) are noisier than I would like. I worked on it to reduce the noise as much as I thought it could take before losing too much detail. Also consider that the bird was at least 30 feet away–pushing the distance limits of the external flash. [I’ve looked into buying or building a Better Beamer, which focuses the light from an external flash onto a much smaller area than the flash itself is capable of. This can increase the effective distance of the flash and also saves wasted light, and therefore, battery power. One of the drawbacks though is that it is big and bulky and could make shooting from a vehicle more difficult.]
I also wanted to mention here something about battery types to use in an external flash unit. My Canon flash takes 4 AA batteries. I have used both alkaline batteries and rechargeable batteries. In my experience, I find that rechargeables outperform alkaline by leaps and bounds for this application. The recycle time suffers the most as alkalines take 2-3 times the time to recycle my flash. I get the batteries with the higher mAh (milliamp hour) rating of at least 2100 or more (the higher the better). This rating tells you the power capacity of the battery–i.e., how long it will hold power. The larger this number, the bigger the ‘power’ tank of the battery.
After taking enough frames of the cormorant at this viewpoint, I start up the truck and move forward another 30 feet or so, stopping a little past the bird but having a clear shot of the whole bird now. Looking out the passenger-side window with camera on my new make-shift bean bag (more about this below), I’m aiming at an angle slightly back and to the right and I’m probably 60 feet from the bird, but it almost fills up the frame vertically. I also notice that the background is not the greatest with some white sky areas reflected in the water and the rest kind of a drab gray/greenish color. But I can’t be picky right now–just shoot the best shot I can while the bird continues to pose for me. [On this rainy day, I wanted to come back with something to post!] He/she was very photogenic as it looked forward then turned its head 180 degrees in the opposite direction over and over. Here’s a shot of the full bird.
Bean bag – I mentioned earlier that I needed a second bag for my other car window. Instead of going out and buying one I decided to try a homemade one. My wife found one of those plastic zippered containers (thanks honey!) that hold new bed sheets that you buy at the store. I bought some pinto beans and filled it. After using it a couple of times, I find it is better than the pillow I was using but that it really needs to be bigger, thicker and heavier to create the kind of base I want. Since the bag is clear plastic, it is fairly resistant to water but I noticed the sky light reflects off of it quite brightly and is probably a signal to birds to get out of town! I will likely get a ‘real’ bean bag one of these days but for now this make-shift one will do.
Driving on past post #11 and heading east toward post #12, I see a large whitish bird preening on a raised area above the water surface on the right side of the road. This is the newly flooded area. Checking with binoculars, it appears to be a California Gull but I don’t detect a partial red eye ring, so maybe I’m off on the ID of this bird. I took a bunch of shots since the distance to the bird was quite far and focusing would be a little trickier than usual. The bird is just hanging out as you can see — it is standing on only one foot. Here’s a shot of this large gull.
Rounding the sharp left, approaching post #12, I see four Sandhill Cranes foraging in the field off to the right, about 150 feet ahead of me. They are maybe, a hundred feet from the road, which isn’t bad for these large birds. I thought for sure they would bolt when I approached so I went very slowly until I got to where they were perpendicular to my position on the road. I’m now as close as I can get to them and snap a bunch of shots. In a few minutes, they sense that I have stopped and am interested in them, so of course, they now fly off. Now, maybe I should have bumped up my ISO to get a faster shutter speed but I didn’t, and left it at ISO400. This left me with 1/80 to 1/100 SS–way too slow to slow down the wing motion as they took off. Recall that it is still not very light out as the cloud cover is dark gray for the most part. I did get some shots of the birds on the ground with one raising its leg rearward. Here’s the shot.
To my left is Rest Lake, where I see about a dozen swans way out in the water. These are the first swans I have seen of the season and they are a beautiful sight. A small group of them take off so I try for some shots. Nothing spectacular but here’s a sample.
Heading on past the three trees I notice a harrier perched on the post at the beginning of the curve prior to post #13. I don’t dare get too close so I stop quite a distance from the bird and shoot what I can get. I have rarely been able to approach within a hundred feet of these birds when they are perched–so unlike the red-tails and the rough-legged hawks. Here’s a shot of this Northern Harrier on the post.
This concluded my shots for the first loop around the refuge. For being so dark, dreary, and rainy, I was satisfied with the opportunities I had for shots. I also saw a group of about 5 River Otters at post #2, a Kingfisher between post # 9 & 10, and a group of Meadowlarks just past post #14. These creatures did not stick around for photos, however.
Near the beginning of my second loop, I spotted a Song Sparrow and took his picture.
It was real quiet for the majority of the loop until I spot a harrier near post #12. Unfortunately, the only shot that came out was the bird flying away from me….it figures! 1/800, f5.6, and ISO640.
This time around I decided to pull into the side road that goes through the gate prior to post #14. The gate, of course, is secured and I stop in front of it. There are fence posts and sticker bushes here and I wanted to see if anything would show up. After a few minutes of waiting, I hear the call of the Spotted Towhee way over to the left in the sticker bushes and call them with the Ipod. I have successfully called them before and within a minute or so I get a couple of males landing on the stickers very close to my truck. The background was just white sky which isn’t my favorite but I take what I can get.
I drive on to the visitor’s center and see that refuge volunteer Al Larrabee has arrived there, too. We talk for a few minutes as we haven’t seen one another for a few months. Among other things, I’m informed that the brand new refuge entrance gate near the paved highway was destroyed by some visitor who tried to beat the gate when it was closing. It took weeks, if not months, to have contractors change the old sliding gate over to this new automatic ‘swing-out’ style gate. The new gate had not been in operation very long when this person tried to get through it as it was closing. Apparently, the visitor was afraid they would be locked in or something. They didn’t read/see the sign that says the gate will automatically re-open when you approach. So they go blasting through the gate and completely destroy it and probably their car, too. Unfortunate, for both the refuge and the visitor.
I had sort of decided last night when I checked the weather for today, that I would do a couple of loops here at Ridgefield, then head on down the highway south to the Tualatin River NWR. Yesterday, I had received an email from a good Flickr friend that there was a Western Screech Owl at the Tualatin refuge, fairly close to the trail, in the woods. He gave me a link to an awesome photo of the owl from a Tualatin photographer just the day before. So I thought I’d take a chance and travel down there to look for the owl and other birds. I hadn’t been down there for a few months so I might as well check it out.
When I first enter the access road to the parking area at Tualatin, I see they have heavy equipment in the parking lot doing major renovations and probably paving it. It ought to be very nice when it is done. After I make sure my flash is attached to the 7D and I attach the 7D to my monopod, I am ready to hike the mile long trail. I normally walk with the camera over my shoulder and the monopod base in front of me. If I come across a bird, it’s fairly quick to bring the camera off my shoulder and set it on the base which is pre-extended to almost its full length, and get into shooting position. I also make sure I have empty CF cards in my pocket.
The first thing I noticed here at the refuge is that the major waterway off the steep bank by the visitor’s center is still dry! I also noticed the same for the water off the main overlook at the end of the trail. I knew they drained these in the summer but thought for sure they would be re-flooded by now. Are they trying to discourage waterfowl from visiting the refuge? If anyone knows please let me know! Thanks. The only water I noticed on the refuge is the Tualatin River itself. I didn’t see a duck during my visit.
I take off hiking the trail and the weather is awesome–some clouds but mostly a nice fall sunlight. I go about a quarter mile or so and notice some small bird activity to my left in the leafy brush not far before the first foot bridge. I see Chickadees and Kinglets flying and ‘jumping’ around. Some of the Kinglets are Golden-crowned — a bird I have not gotten a photo of yet. As you know, these little birds are a challenge to shoot as they are always on the move and give you little time to focus and shoot. It turns out that none of my shots were good enough to even keep after I got home to look at them. But I get another chance a little later on my hike.
I continue to walk the trail but the activity along the trail is very low. I saw a Scrub and Steller’s Jay from a distance but nothing to photograph. Once I entered the woods, about 3/4 mile into the hike, I start looking at every tree for the Screech Owl I was hoping to see. Long story short–I didn’t see it, nor did I see any other birds close enough to shoot along the wooded trail. It was a disappointment but sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.
Now, coming out of the woods on my way back to the truck, I noticed more small bird activity to the left in a cluster of trees. Again, I see Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets along with Chickadees. At first they were way too high in the tree so I tried calling them with the Ipod and about 3 or 4 of them came to the branches right above me. I was amazed how they reacted. But shooting almost straight up into the tree is not the best pose for a bird shot. But I did what I could and came away with a few shots–certainly not magazine cover material, but a photo lifer anyway. Here’s a shot or two of the Golden-crowned Kinglet.
It wasn’t a super productive day but I’m still glad I came to the Tualatin River NWR. Generally speaking, getting bird shots at this refuge requires much more effort and time than getting them at Ridgefield. Opportunities seem to be fewer and much farther between than when you drive the loop at Ridgefield (which can also be a bust on a crummy day). But I have sometimes gotten good opportunities at Tualatin on the small trail just off the parking lot behind the visitor’s center during the spring. All sorts of spring migrators will come to the trees in this location and you only have to walk a couple hundred feet. I would never pass up walking the main trail when I’m there but there is something to be said for this little loop by the parking lot.
The other disadvantage to Tualatin is that it attracts school buses full of noisy kids (so does Ridgefield occasionally) which doesn’t mix too well with bird photography. I try to stay as far from other people as possible with the idea that the fewer people, the less risk the birds will fly. When the refuge opens up the service roads to foot traffic in the late spring, there are more places to spread out and be alone. During the fall/winter season of the year, everyone is forced to stay on this one short trail, so there is more chance you will have to deal with folks passing you while you’re trying to shoot.
Tualatin is a beautiful place but more taylored to casual nature viewers and not to serious bird photographers. This is not to say that you can’t take fine shots there, but the likelihood of getting better shots, and more shots, will usually be at Ridgefield because most visitors are in their own vehicles (not walking by you when you’re trying to shoot), you cover a lot more ground more quickly in your car, and your car acts as a blind, generally making it easier to approach wildlife. Since you don’t have to walk at Ridgefield (unless you want to and it’s the right season) the effort expended per shot is much less than lugging your gear on the trail at Tualatin.
This doesn’t mean I will stop visiting Tualatin or Steigerwald Lake (east of Vancouver on Hwy 14) NWR’s in the future. They are beautiful places. Earlier this year I almost got my first decent shot of a Pileated Woodpecker at Steigerwald Lake NWR–if he just hadn’t decided to land on the opposite side of the tree trunk from me! You just never know what you’ll see no matter where you decide to shoot!
Thanks for hanging around for this chapter of my shooting adventures! Be looking for a future post describing my RAW workflow. I hope to generate some discussion on this topic!