Terns at Bear River Migratory Wildlife Refuge

I guess I didn’t realize how many birds I saw at Bear River Migratory Wildlife Refuge until I started posting about my visit. I was amazed at the number of species nesting on the refuge, birds I only see in the winter or during migration. In retrospect, it’s an even more remarkable place than I thought it was the two days I was there — and I already thought it was very special.

I see Common Terns in many places and I’m always trying to capture shots of them in flight,

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especially hovering just before diving.

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What I’ve never seen before, though, is them constructing nests. I’m sure I was anthropomorphizing while watching these two Common Terns building a nesting site, particularly since we just spent a week having our house repainted. However, it really seemed to me that this (female?) tern was berating her mate about how slowly the nest-building was going.

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Eventually, the mate showed up with a rather large stick in its beak

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and spent an inordinate amount of time deciding exactly where to place that stick — so I’m assuming it wasn’t just a pile of sticks, that at least one of them had some sort of “plan” as to what this nest should look like — I suspect it was the female.

Once again, I really wish I’d had another week or two to see how this nest proceeded. I’m going to have to coördinate my trip to Colorado next year so that I can stop before and after my trip to have a better chance of seeing the birds while their nesting.

And Black-Necked Stilt, Too

As already noted, I went to Bear River primarily to see Avocets, but I wasn’t at all surprised to see a large number of Black-Necked Stilt there. In fact, I can’t remember ever seeing Avocets without also seeing Black-Necked Stilt, though I have seen Black-Necked Stilt without seeing Avocets.

It’s hard to say whether there were more Stilts or Avocets, but if you click on this shot you’ll see a single Avocet in the middle of this flock of Stilts.

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Black-Necked Stilt often get territorial, chasing other stilt away, but I’ve never seen one try to chase away an Avocet, even though they are often feeding quite close to each other. Why is that? Do the stilts and avocets eat different food, so they don’t see them as competitors. If they don’t eat the same foods, why do they appear in the same environment so often? Although many sites link them together, none discuss similarities or differences. Frustrating.

For the moment, I guess I’ll have to be satisfied admiring their delicate beauty,

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and marveling at their long, thin legs

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Those long legs give the impression that the Black-Necked Stilt is a large bird, but seeing them next to the smallish Cinnamon Teal reveals how delicate they really are,

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an impression reinforced by this close-up.

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American Avocet at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge

I knew when I heard two years ago that the Great Salt Lake is one of the primary breeding areas of avocets that I would have to go there to see them . And see them, I did. They were throughout the refuge, from wetlands to dry lands.

Of course, I expected to see them wading in the wetlands because that’s where I have always seen them at Sacramento and Malheur, In fact, I tend to think of them as “shorebirds” because I’ve always seen them wading

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while sweeping up food with their long, curved bills.

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I didn’t drive two states to merely see them wading in water. I actually came to observe them during breeding season and hopefully to get some shots of them with chicks.

I was a little surprised to see Avocets strutting across what appeared to be sand dunes,

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which also turned out to be a nesting area. In fact, a barren area just before the auto tour had been taped off because it was an Avocet nesting area. Their nests turned out to be little more than hollows in the sand lined with small sticks and brush.

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The greatest surprise, though, was learning that Avocets used the same ploys that Killdeer use

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to lead predators away from their nesting area. This one must have spent ten minutes trying to tempt me to follow it away by dragging it’s wings on the ground and fluttering in the dirt. I’m not sure, but it seemed that even females who didn’t have a nest were intent on leading me away from an area where several Avocets could be seen sitting on nests.

Unfortunately, I turned out to be too early to get pictures of Avocet chicks; locals weren’t sure whether the egg laying was late because the weather had been cold or if it was just too early to see chicks. I’ll have to find out before returning next year.

Eared Grebe at Bear River

When we missed our opportunity to visit Mono Lake, California, this summer I thought I’d also missed my chance to see Eared Grebes in breeding colors this year since Mono Lake is one of their main breeding areas. I didn’t realize that they also breed in Utah’s Great Salt Lake, and Big Bear River is at the north end of the lake.

Although I mostly saw Clark’s Grebes at Big Bear, it was a pleasant surprise when I saw a small flock of Eared Grebes on my second trip around the auto tour.

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The first time I saw these bird up close in breeding colors a few years ago I was shocked by the bright red eye and the “ear” plumage which makes the eye stand out, and I’m still fascinated by the distinctive plumage.

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I rarely see Eared Grebes, so it’s definitely a treat when I do get a chance to see them, particularly in breeding colors.

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I was surprised to learn that they are the most abundant grebe, something I would never have guessed since I commonly see Pied Grebe, Horned Grebe, Red-Necked Grebe, Western Grebe and Clark’s Grebe in the Puget Sound areas but have yet to see an Eared Grebe.

One moment you think you really need to stay focused on a particular area to truly understand a particular phenomena; the next moment you realize you need to go to other places to put things in proper perspective. I’ll need at least another seventy years of retirement to learn all the things I want to learn.

Grebes at Bear River

I was disappointed that I didn’t see many Western or Clark’s Grebes at Malheur when I was there, but I shouldn’t have worried because it was one of the first birds I saw at Bear River, almost before the sun rose.

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I’m so used to seeing Western Grebe in the Puget Sound region, like this one

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that it took me awhile to realize that most of the grebes I were seeing were actually Clark’s Grebes, which look like this one.

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To the untrained eye, they look the same, but the black topknot descends lower on the Western Grebe, and its bill is a subtle greenish-yellow, not bright orange. Of course, Stokes points out that the two varieties also interbreed, so it’s not always that easy to distinguish one from the other.

Luckily, both varieties are equally beautiful. I had hoped that I would either see pairs performing mating dances or see mothers carrying the chicks on their back, but apparently I was too late for the former and too early for the latter.

So I had to settle for shots like this of romantic pairs that obviously wanted to be close to each other,

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while I was there,

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but didn’t seem too interested in dancing up a storm for me. Damn.

The biggest disadvantage to visiting far away places is that you have only one chance to see birds, and it’s very hard to figure out when they will be mating or having babies. I worried that I would be too late to get shots of young Avocets, but it turned out they were just beginning to nest, much less have chicks. That wouldn’t be problem near home; I would be able to predict when I needed to get back by what I saw on my visit. I’m probably not going to get back to Big Bear until Fall, if then. By then most of the birds will have already left. I won’t really have much chance of seeing most of them before next summer, a long ways off.

Snowy Egrets at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge

I didn’t go to Bear River to get pictures of Snowy Egrets. I can find them much nearer than that, but somehow I still filled up a lot of my memory card with shots of them. They are such a striking bird that I can’t imagine not pointing my camera at them when they’re around.

I doubt I’ll ever get better closeups than the shots I got in Santa Rosa in the last few years, but somehow that doesn’t seem to make these shots any less beautiful.

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Ignoring a Snowy Egret as it stalks a pond

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because you’ve already seen one stalking a pond would make about as much sense as ignoring a beautiful girl in a bikini walking down the beach because you’ve seen one before.

It doesn’t hurt if you can manage to capture them in a different pose,

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one that manages to show a different side of their beauty. I suspect Snowy Egrets have thrived because they’ve mastered the art of killing, stalking their prey like some ninja warrior, striking with a suddenness

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that chills the bones.

White-Faced Ibis at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge

I can’t imagine how you could teach high school for 30 years without learning not to trust first appearances. After an inauspicious beginning, I began to see what a treasure the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge really is. I saw many of the birds I had hoped to photograph at Malheur this year but didn’t get to. As I noted earlier, the only White-Faced Ibis I saw at Malheur were flying or were hidden in the tall grass.

That wasn’t a problem at Bear River, as I saw them every time I circled the refuge. Even this shot taken at 5:45 in the morning showed some of the brilliant colors that make White-Faced Ibis so photographic.

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Like the “Horse of a Different Color” in the Wizard of Oz, the Ibis constantly changes color depending on the quality and direction of the light.

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In fact, one of the biggest problems in adjusting photographs of White-Faced Ibis is deciding whether the color balance is correct or not, especially when surrounded by brilliant water reflections.

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My favorite shot turned out to be this one, even though the ibis looks less colorful than it does in the other shots. Having the Snowy Egret next to the ibis, though, made it easier to determine the true color balance in the shot.

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My only complaint about Bear River is that there’s a single lane road around the main section and there aren’t many places where you can stop and wait for the right light. I’m pretty sure I missed a chance for some great shots when a car was impatiently waiting for me to move on. That said, it’s still one of the best places I’ve ever been to get shots of birds I love but never see in the Puget Sound region.