Welcome to Cootsville

In retrospect, it seems strangely appropriate that the first shots I got on Bear River Migratory Refuge are these shots of young American Coots,

though I didn’t immediately recognize them when I sighted them. As it turns out, the refuge was full of American Coots on this visit, way more than I remember seeing in past visits.

It was clear that many of these youngsters

were on their own, that their parents were already raising a second brood.

I don’t remember seeing an American Coot at this stage of development before.

As Leslie pointed out, at this stage they look a lot like baby Western Grebes — and very little like they do as babies. The best way to identify them as coots is to look at their very distinctive legs and feet.

While these youngster seemed to be wandering all over the refuge by themselves, there was also a considerable number adults raising recently born chicks.

Once you’ve seen these guys, it’s impossible to deny the existence of ugly babies, cute as they may be.

Back to Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge

Long before we reached the driving tour at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge we realized that its appearance had changed from last year. The grass was taller than I’ve ever seen before, so tall that it was hard to see even Long-Billed Curlew.

We were also surprised to see Avocets

and White-faced Ibis in small ponds so close to the road.

Heck, I even managed to get a shot of a Franklin Gull,

something I’d been trying to do our whole trip.

Not far away, a Snowy Egret was hunting in what appeared to be a lake, though we knew from previous visits it was far too shallow to qualify as a lake.

In retrospect, if I’d known how different the refuge itself was from last year, I would have spent more time here because it was the closest I managed to get to Avocets or Ibis on the trip. It seems with all last winter’s rain that the refuge was managing the refuge differently than on previous visits. The wetlands where I’d gotten close-up shots of Avocet and Black-necked Stilt chicks last year weren’t wetlands at all; they were bone dry.

A Morning Drive through Malheur

Although our main destination was Bear River in Utah, I love Malheur and wasn’t going to leave without spending another morning birding before heading out. Although I couldn’t manage to capture a shot of the Bob-o-link that I look for this time of year, we did spot a Sand Hill Crane in the same field where we usually spot the Bob-o-links.

The highlight of the morning probably came when we spotted a pair of Great Horned Owls

in the small trees than line the Blitzen River,

though I’ll have to admit that I’m particularly fond of the Yellow Warblers

and Willow Flycatchers

that frequent the willows that line the southern end of the refuge.

You never know what you will find at Malheur. This is the first time I’ve seen Cedar Waxwings there.

A Little Bit of Everything

With water levels high at Malheur, I wondered if there would be as many birds on Ruh Red Lane as there had been in years before the recent drought. I’ve gotten some of my best pictures of Avocets and Black-necked Stilts there. It certainly didn’t look very promising as we headed out the road; all we saw for quite a while was this Western Kingbird perched on the barbed wire fence.

With prospects looking a little dim, I was relieved when we actually ran into some water along side the road. There weren’t too many birds in sight, but there was a Black-necked Stilt,

one of the two birds I’d gone looking for.

A little ways down the road Leslie got this shot of as Snowy Egret foraging next to a White-Faced Ibis.

On our way back I managed to get a shot of this male Curlew (or is it a Whimbrel?) that Leslie sighted.

While at the refuge headquarters I read that someone had spotted Golden eaglet, so I decided to check out the nest that I had seen several years before without ever spotting any Golden Eagles. Sure enough, we spotted two eaglet stretching their wings and peering over the nest, a first-ever for me.

I knew that we were too late to see large numbers of migrating birds, but I’m never disappointed by the wide variety of birds I see at Malheur.

Willets in Action

Although I’ve seen many Willets on the ocean shore in both Washington and California, I didn’t have any idea what it was when first confronted by one in Malheur. When I saw one flying by, I got out of the car and tried to capture it in flight. That turned out to be a lot easier to do than expected because instead of flying away as most birds do, “it,” and as it turned out, “they,” flew directly over my head several times, protesting constantly until the first one landed nearby and glared at me. I lost track of the first bird when a second Willet appeared, flying even closer than the first had flown and complained even louder until it, too, landed on nearby sagebrush. At that point it took off to join the first bird as they retreated into the heavy brush. A little online research indicates that Willets spend the winter on the coastline but nest in grasslands and prairies near fresh water.

Expect the Unexpected

Although I go to places like Malheur National Wildlife Refuge expecting to see certain birds that I don’t see locally in the Puget Sound area, it’s always a thrill when I see something unexpected. I actually saw several unexpected birds the two days I was there, but I think this male Canvasback was a “lifer.”

I was totally frustrated trying to get the camera to focus because of the grass and reeds, so I was thrilled when it took off right in front of me.

I even managed to snap off more than one

shot while keeping it in focus and in the frame.

I’ll have to admit that when I originally saw this bird I thought it was a Redhead Duck because I couldn’t remember ever seeing a Canvasback before and the two look quite similar.

Strangely enough, it wasn’t much further up the road when I snapped this shot of what I thought was probably the same bird.

Comparing the two on the screen, it was clear that they definitely weren’t the same bird. It was the white back on the first duck that made me question my original identification. In the end, though, it was the shape of the head that convinced me that the first duck was a Canvasback and this second one is a Redhead, a bird I’ve only seen in Colorado before.

Think Green

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is much greener this year than it has been for years due to an unusually wet Winter. Still, I wasn’t ready for what we saw on the two days we were there. Page Springs Campground was almost tropical. Red-wing Blackbirds

staked their claim to the ponds at the entrance to the campground.

This fawn nearly disappeared in the tall grass lining the creek at the south end of the refuge,

though I suspect it might have been harder to spot if the grass was its usual brown color.

I’m not sure I would have ever been able to spot this Nighthawk if it hadn’t been for the tall green grass lining the main road.

The creeks that lined the road were emerald-green, reflecting the vivid green reeds and grasses that lined them. This Cinnamon Teal seemed even more striking than usual by contrast.

It wasn’t as green on the northern end of the refuge, though this is the first time in several years there’s been any water there. Like the fawn, this Meadowlark stood out against the green background.

It appeared that the refuge managers haven’t flooded parts of the refuge that are usually flooded, making it harder to predict where to find birds you’ve seen in the past. I wondered if managers were intentionally draining some ponds to help eradicate the carp that damage the habitat. Whatever the reason, wildlife seemed more dispersed than in the previous two or three years because there is more water available, a good thing for the wildlife even if not quite so good for photographers and bird watchers.