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.

Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge

Although I’ve wanted to visit Utah’s Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge for nearly three years now, my recent arrival seemed anything but auspicious. Malheur was always intended to be just a way-stop on my trip to Bear River, but I left much later than I should have (Yeah I know, but I was having way too much fun taking pictures to leave then), and ended up not arriving at Brigham City until 3:00 AM, much too late to check into a campground.

I tried to catch a quick nap at the rest stop, but the sheet-lightning and thunder doused any hope of that. Around 4:30 I finally went to an all night-McDonald’s and got a cheese, sausage and egg biscuit to tide me over. Food and sleep are nearly interchangeable; you can substitute junk food for sleep when absolutely necessary. Not knowing what time the refuge opened, I headed out.

The short drive seemed even less promising as I was met by a mix of snowflakes, heavy rain and lightning. At first light, all I could see was the light reflecting off the snow in the nearby Rockies.

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I was told by a local resident that it was unusual to have snow on the mountains this late.

Luckily, the weather to the Southwest seemed more promising, at least in the long run,

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and that’s where the lightning storms seemed to be coming from during the night. I was so early that the gate was still closed, even though it was supposed to open at sunrise.

Luckily, there was long stretch of refuge before the gate that I could explore until it did open. Things started to look up when I was greeted by this Long-Billed Curlew when I got out of my car to set up my camera equipment. Even though it was too dark to get great pictures, it seemed like a personal greeter as I got some nice shots despite the lack of light.

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I took its greeting as an omen of better things to come.

Sure enough, by the time the main gate opened the skies were clearing to the Northwest,

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and, as it turned out, the skies were clear the next two days.

The birder in me loved the number of birds I saw in those early morning hours, but the photographer in me was reminded just how futile it is to try to get good pictures without enough light. What could have been beautiful shots an hour or two later

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were so grainy that I had little choice but to delete them and save disk space for better pictures to come.

Some Final Shots from Malheur

I’ve already said that my favorite shots from the Malheur portion of the trip were those of the Snipes, birds I’d been pursuing in vain, for years. Another ambition I’ve had for several years now is to see the birds I see overwintering in Puget Sound where they live the rest of the year. I saw that last year when I got pictures of the grebes with babies on their backs.

This year I unexpectedly got shots of this female Common Merganser with her ducklings as I drove through the refuge.

Common  Merganser ducklings

It was actually a challenge to get these shots because the mother, naturally enough, tried to avoid me seeing her or her chicks. There was actually at least three or four more chicks, but there was no way I was going to get them all in a single frame. Most shots actually had huge blurry spots because the creek was edged with tall grass, but ‘burning’ those spot in Photoshop helped to even the tones out.

Even I could hardly avoid going “Awww” as I took these shots; these might be the cutest ducklings I have ever seen.

I’m not going to make the same claim for these American Coot chicks, which seem about as adorable as a vulture with their bald, red heads and odd-color “fur,” but they’re so homely that I do find them cute, and I don’t know of a more attentive parent,

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or a more demanding child.

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Unlike the Common Merganser, the American Coot seemed largely indifferent to me and my truck, so I was able to stick around and get all the shots I wanted.

Coot with Chick

Getting these shots as I was leaving for Big Bear capped off my two days at Malheur. It was a great two days.

Yellow Warblers and Cowbirds at Malheur

Although driving your car is the only practical way to bird Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, getting out and walking parts of the refuge makes it possible to get shots you would otherwise miss, like this shot of what appeared to be a young Yellow Warbler [UPDATE: After an email from John and pretty well convinced that the top bird is NOT a warbler, the beak is too thick to be Warbler] and Brown-Headed Cowbird.

young Yellow Warbler and Cowbird

I must admit I was totally confused by the shot at first. [UPDATE: Perhaps confused was the correct state and I shouldn't have tried to make a connection between the nearby Yellow Warbler and these two.] I thought that it had to be two young birds because of their behavior, particularly the fact that they stayed put rather than flying away when I shifted position to get a better shot through the heavy foliage. Most adults would fly away if they thought you were really interested in them, whereas chicks tend to freeze in place, hoping to avoid detection.

It was pretty clear that the two were different kinds of birds, though at first I thought it might be the heavy foliage that made them seem to be different colors and they were both immature Yellow Warblers and that was why this Yellow Warbler was so intent on attracting my attention away from them.

Yellow Warbler

Although I saw adult Yellow Warblers both days at Malheur, none came nearly as close as this one did, trying to attract my attention. Naturally I obliged by following it away, getting the best shots I’ve managed all the while.

It wasn’t until I got home that looked more carefully at the “chicks” that I realized the bottom bird was a Brown-headed Cowbird, a bird that lays its eggs in other bird’s nests, including the nests of Yellow Warblers. Although I’d heard about the phenomena, it really didn’t register until I looked at this photo. There’s quite a trove of information on the internet about the phenomena, it turns out.

Since Cowbirds often lay their eggs in the nests of Yellow Warblers, Yellow Warblers are often able to recognize that it is not their egg and they build another nest over the top of the nest with the egg to avoid hatching it. This mother, at least, didn’t seem to distinguish the difference between her own brood and the cowbird and was raising both as her own.

Seems kind of like a reverse Ugly Duckling fairy-tale, doesn’t it?