In the Morning Light

With a long drive in front of us, I wanted to get an early start on our last day in California and get a last look at The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge even though I knew the light wouldn’t be ideal at that hour.

We finally got to see the flocks of Snow Geese that we hadn’t yet seen, though the orangish, sunrise light gave them a different look than I’ve seen before.

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The same light gave this male Northern Shoveler an almost surreal look.

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We didn’t see a single Avocet, but this Black-Necked Stilt

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appeared almost as pinkish as Avocets do.

Later, I wished that we had the same light when finally got to Mt. Shasta,

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but by then the sun had ducked behind the clouds, giving it a very different look.

Days like that give you a real sense of just how subjective light and the resulting colors can be.

Colusa National Wildlife Refuge

We’ve gotten used to seeing Snow Geese, Avocets and White-Faced Ibis in previous visits to Colusa National Wildlife Refuge. This time, however, we didn’t see a single Avocet and only saw two or three White-Faced Ibis,

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and had to wait until the second day to see any Snow Geese, and had to settle for some nice shots of Greater White Faced Geese

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which we also seldom see here in the PNW.

We did enjoy seeing the Night Heron Rookery we discovered on our first visit, but when we visited this time they were all roosting in the heavy brush, making it challenging to get a good shot.

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Luckily, when you don’t find what you expect, you often find other birds that you didn’t expect, like this Northern Shrike

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that Leslie got a nice shot out her window, and this Marsh Wren

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announcing Spring to the world.

Egrets and More Egrets

After seeing so many Egrets on our way to Santa Rosa, I was disappointed when I didn’t get a picture of a single one at Lake Ralphine or Spring Lake. I should have known that I’d get several pictures on the way home at the Colusa or Sacramento National Wildlife Refuges. We didn’t have to wait long, either; this shot of a Great Egret was nearly the first of our shots.

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From a distance, and because it was standing in rather light shrubs, I assumed that it was a Snowy Egret, but a close look at the beak indicates reveals it’s definitely a Great Egret.

Through the lens of the camera it’s easy to confuse the two, but when you see them together there can be no doubt which is the Snowy Egret and which is the Great Egret:

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the Great Egret dwarfs the Snowy Egret.

Although egrets are becoming more and more common in the Pacific Northwest, I still identify them with California, particularly the Snowy Egret, which is less common the further north you go.

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Compared to many birds, they’re a great photographic subject because they’re relatively indifferent to people and because, like the Great Blue Heron, they stay in one place, poised for the moment their prey exposes itself.

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As a result, I already have a number of excellent shots of both species. Luckily beauty like this is always striking, no matter how many times you have seen it.

Nothing Is Ever Just Black and White

Although it was “bright” while I was in Santa Rosa, it was never sunny. It was actually the perfect light for portraits, but less than ideal for action shots. As it turned out, though, it was nearly perfect light for at least two of my subjects.

As I’ve complained before, it’s really hard to capture both the subtle whites and blacks of male Bufflehead. 95% of the time either the whites or the blacks get totally washed out, and you end up with a silhouette. This is probably the best shot I’ve ever gotten of a male Bufflehead, with details in both the blacks and the whites,

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though I’ll have to admit that I had to tone down the highlights further than seemed realistic to get the details. In real life, the white seems brighter than this and yet, somehow, manages to maintain details.

There was another black and white duck that I have also struggled to capture in photos, a male Common Merganser.

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This guy was actually standing in fairly heavy shade, but it’s one of the few “closeups” I’ve ever managed to get of one out of the water so I like it quite a lot. As a result, the blacks were a little to dark to draw details from and the whites also lost details trying to correct the blacks.

Here’s a shot of a male Common Merganser in brighter light.

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At this angle it’s clear that the head really isn’t solid black as it appeared in the previous shot, but is really a very dark green that shimmers in the right light. The trade-off, and there invariably seems to be one, is that there is a loss of detail in the white areas.

In an ideal world, a male Common Merganser would have stood upright and flapped its wing like this female did, but I long ago accepted the fact that I don’t live in an ideal world and was grateful that this female Common Merganser provided a little action for the day.

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Of course, since it was slightly overcast the shutter speed wasn’t quite fast enough to prevent blur in the wings, but that’s okay to me because they actually appeared blurry when I saw them beating, too.

Of course, these shots would benefit from HDR, the method I use almost automatically on scenic shots nowadays, but there’s no way to combine three shots at different apertures when the subject is in motion. RAW format is the best you can do at capturing what the eye really sees.

Lake Ralphine Swan

There’s no doubt that one of the highlights of visiting Lake Ralphine in Santa Rosa is the chance to photograph the swans closeup. Although I occasionally see migrating swans in Washington, I’ve never had the chance to shoot them up close. Of course, the year-round swans in Lake Ralphine are hardly “wild,” but their beauty more than makes up for any lack of wildness.

I can’t resist the beauty of shots like this.

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Eventually, though, beauty, at least “accepted” beauty, is not enough. You begin to search for new ways to see your subject. For instance, it’s probably the expressive curve of the swan’s neck that sets it apart from most birds, but a closeup like this shows better just how long that neck really is.

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Seen in isolation, that neck reminds me a lot of an ostrich, not a bird that’s ever struck me as particularly “beautiful.”

Seen from a different angle, the swan’s beak seems quite remarkable,

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even more so if you click on the picture to enlarge it and examine the rows of “teeth.” In the end beauty, indeed, seems to follow function.

That long, graceful neck and unique beak make it possible for the swan to find food where smaller birds would find it difficult if not impossible.

A Whirlwind Trip to Santa Rosa

After disappearing into Dragon Age Inquisition and nearly two weeks of solid rain, I gladly agreed to go with Leslie on a whirlwind trip to Santa Rosa to visit her brother Jeff and to handle some legal documents last week even though two long days of driving seems excessive for a five-day trip; our usual trips are 7 to 9 days long, and even those often haven’t seemed long enough.

Still, I managed to get in two walks around Spring Lake, one with Jeff and Leslie, and another Friday afternoon after Jeff and Debbie had taken off for home. It seemed auspicious that the first bird we saw on our walk was an Acorn Woodpecker, a bird only rarely sighted in the Pacific Northwest. Even better, the day was sunny and we were walking downhill, so the woodpecker was only slightly above us.

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Although they’re not my favorite “poses,” these shots did manage to capture more detail than most of the ones I’ve taken before.

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I still haven’t managed to wade through all the shots I took in California, but apparently we managed to drag some sunshine back with us so I had to walk Theler today. Not sure what’s planned for tomorrow, but if it as sunny as the weather forecast calls for I doubt I will be able to sit in front of a computer working on photos. After all, I’m sure there’s lots of rain left this winter and spring, the best time to sit inside working on a computer.