Malheur’s Sage Grouse

My long-held belief that Malheur Wildlife Refuge is Sacred Ground was reinforced by my early morning trip to a Sage Grouse Lek on my last day there. Ever since I began telling birders that Malheur is one of my favorite birding destinations, they have asked me if I’ve visited the Lek. I haven’t largely because getting up at 3:30 AM is pretty brutal for me and because I was never convinced that I would be able to find the Lek in the dark in the middle of the desert. In fact, I didn’t think I would visit this year either until I met Mark in the campground and he asked me if I was going there. Mark had been birding for forty years and knew where the Lek was. I told him my reservations and he told me he knew where it was but he wasn’t sure his Prius could handle the back roads. So we agreed to go in my truck at 4:00 AM.

Even with his experience we ended up slightly off, probably because there had been a major fire two years ago and the Sage Grouse had relocated slightly. Luckily, a ranger drove a ways past where we were waiting, spotted the grouse and backed up and directed us to where they were.

There was something “magical” about watching male Sage Grouse emerge from the darkness one by one and begin to perform their dance. All I could see with the naked eye was the white ruff around the neck at first. As it turns out, the magic of RAW shots and Photoshop makes the bird actually appear clearer than it did in the early morning light.

 Sage Grouse

Since I had to shoot at an ISO of 3200, I had to use a plug-in to remove some of the noise from the shot. I could have adjusted the colors, too, but I wanted the shots to remain as true to life as possible.

Luckily, the grouse actually moved closer as the light increased, making better and better shots possible as the morning went on, though none of mine approach the quality of some I’ve found on the internet. They are, to say the least, fascinating birds with their huge fan-shaped tails, their white ruffs, and their bright yellow air sacks they inflate to attract females.  Sage Grouse There were five or six males displaying on the Lek  Sage Grouse

and several female Sage Grouse ran across the Lek throughout the performance.

 female Sage Grouse

Time passed rapidly sitting there listening to their odd, thunking calls and before long it was sunrise, which made photographs much easer to get, though it still wasn’t ideal conditions because the sun was behind them. What it did do, though, was give a wonderful glow to those brilliant tail feathers

 Sage Grouse

and those large, yellow air sacks that produced those haunting calls.

 Sage Grouse I’m already looking forward to next year’s trip to the Lek, or, perhaps, to other Leks. Until then, I’ll have to be satisfied with this shot.  Sage Grouse

If you ever get the chance to visit a Lek, don’t wait like I did; it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Osprey at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Although I’ve never seen an Osprey at Malheur before and was told that they’ve failed to establish nests there because they can’t spot fish in the muddy water in the middle of summer, I managed to get the best shots I’ve ever gotten of one on this trip.

This Osprey was circling the small pond at the visitor’s center as I pulled up, so naturally I watched as it made several passes over the pond.

Osprey

Although I got shots of it on passes where it failed to catch a fish, it was behind a tree when it caught this whopper and I had to settle for a shot of it carrying the huge trout

Osprey with trout

to a perch

Osprey with trout

where it could eat its catch.

Assuming that it would take a while to eat that big of a fish, I decided to get

closer, using the blind at the east end of the pond. Even though the Osprey seemed irritated by my presence

Osprey with trout

it continued its feast

Osprey with trout long enough that I finally decided I wasn’t going to get a better shot than the ones I had already gotten and decided to look for more birds.

Pheasants at Malheur

I got a chance to photograph another bird at Malheur that has been elusive in previous years, the Ring-necked Pheasant. This is the first time I’ve ever see a male pheasant with females and was surprised to see this one with several females. A little research showed that male pheasants often have harems. Unfortunately, I only observed them together a long ways off, so I only managed to get a shot of the male with one of its harem.

pair of Pheasants

When I got closer, they scattered though the male pheasant headed towards the long grass that lined the road, which might have been a good strategy for most predators but wasn’t the best strategy if you were trying to avoid human hunters.

It did, however, give me a change to get some great shots of him. I liked this shot showing the beautiful patterns on his back.

Pheasant

Then, as if to offer a perfect profile, he made a sharp right turn and followed the grass line for several more feet

 Pheasant

before finally disappearing. If I’m going to improve on the shots I’ve gotten this year, I’m going to have to really step my game up and go back to Malheur when there’s snow or doing the earlier mating season when males compete for mates.

Long-Billed Curlews at Malheur

I spent two or three years at the coast looking for Long-Billed Curlews without any luck. So last year when I got a distant shot of one at Malheur I was thrilled. This year, though, I wasn't nearly as happy when I saw this one in the distance even though it was much closer and I got a better shot.

Long-Billed Curlew

It seems to be human nature to always want more than we have. Photographically, that means I want more than just a shot of a curlew walking across the grass.

I was a lot happier, though, when I caught a picture of this curlew with its wings spread out in the sunshine.

Long-Billed Curlew

If you can't catch a picture of one actually flying, this is the next best thing.

Later, though, I got an even better series of shots when I was attracted by one curlew’s persistent “call.”

Long-Billed Curlews

Though I could never figure out exactly was going on these three had a squabble that went on for quite a while. Two of the curlews seemed determined to drive the third off, though they never actually touched each other. No matter, it made for some

Long-Billed Curlews

dramatic shots.

Long-Billed Curlews

I never did see what happened in the end. When I decided to leave after nearly fifteen minutes, the bird they were trying to chase away was still voicing its displeasure.

Long-Billed Curlew

Snow Geese

There are probably as many reasons people visit Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge as there are visitors. Perhaps even more, since I go there for several different reasons. But the main reason I keep going back is the tremendous number of birds you see there, particularly Snow Geese and Ross Geese.

In fact, I was quite disappointed that there was no Snow Geese to be seen when we visited in January and on our first stop on our recent trip. In fact, I’d resigned myself that we’d missed them this year, that with recent changes in weather that they’d already started their northern migration.

So I was delighted when we saw a large flock of them in the distance as we approached the refuge on our way home.

Snow Geese in Flight

By the time we’d actually reached the refuge they covered the pond like new fallen snow.

Snow Geese at Rest

When I talk to fellow visitors at wildlife refuges I often tell them that I consider myself a wildlife photographer more than a serious birder. But the joy I take in seeing the Snow Geese suggests something quite different. In fact, I find it nearly impossible to take a good photograph of these birds. I suspect only movies would offer any hope of capturing their beauty.

There are so many that it’s nearly impossible to compose a picture. I used to tell my Yearbook photographers to try to avoid shots where you have to cut people up to get a decent shot, but that’s almost invariably the kind of shot I get when I shoot these flocks.

 Snow Goose

No, I don’t come here to photograph the Snow Geese, even if I keep trying to capture what I feel in still shots. No, I come here because it makes me feel alive. This is one of those sacred places where you can feel the earth’s pulse.

Meadowlark in Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

One of the best parts of visiting a Wildlife Refuge many miles from your home is that you’re apt to see birds you would never see at home. For instance, I was pleased to see this Meadowlark on our first visit to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge,

Meadowlark

though I would have been even happier if I’d managed to hear him sing or if he would have turned a little more toward the camera so that the beautiful colors on its breast were more prominently displayed.

On our later visit I did manage to get a shot of one singing,

Meadowlark

and got to listen to it’s beautiful song.

Leslie, however, managed to get the very best shot out of her side of the car.

Meadowlark

I particularly liked this shot after I read that the Meadowlark is part of the blackbird family of birds, a thought that had never occurred to me, though further reflection reminded me that they do look like immature and female Red-Wing Blackbirds. This pose looks exactly like the classic male Red-Wing Blackbird pose, and even though their songs are quite different they both rank up their with my favorite bird songs.

Swans at Lake Ralphine

On my last trip to Santa Rosa and Lake Ralphine I had hoped that the Swans I had observed on my trip a month earlier might have had babies, especially when they didn’t show up at the boat launch. When they didn’t show up after several hours, though, I wondered if they had actually left. However, when I walked the back side of Lake Ralphine I saw a single swan at the end of the lake closest to Spring Lake.

Since I’d always seen the swans together, I wondered if something had happened to its mate or if the mate was sitting on a nest.

So, when the swan slowly paddled away and headed for the underbrush at the end of the lake

I followed.

No nest, no baby swans, but there seemed like a lot of “necking” going on.

It seemed clear that the babies would be coming a little later.

Hopefully I’ll be back when they have cygnets.