Rite of Spring

Trying to photograph the shorebird Spring migration has become an annual ritual for me even though I long ago resigned myself to the fact that my pictures will never capture what most attracts me to the shore line. Of course, if I actually knew what that was this blog entry would have been up several days ago and not sitting in the rewrite pile for several days. I always find it harder to write when I don’t know what I want to say.

There is some ineffable force that draws me to these migrations. I feel it when I’m there, but the more I think about it the less sure I am what it is that I feel. I suspect biologists would say this compelling force is simply a manifestation of the urge to reproduce, which it is, of course, but it seems much more than that.

Whatever it is, it can’t be caught in traditional photography. There is something chaotic about it that refuses to be captured by even the fastest lenses. Point your camera at a flock and it’s sheer luck if one of the thousands of birds present is in focus.

shorebird migration

Of course, biologists might simply point out that traveling in large flocks is a powerful defensive mechanism and it’s easy to see the protection that a large flock offers against predators in the photographs. It’s virtually impossible to pick out a single bird and focus on it.

Even at a considerable distance it’s impossible to keep the whole flock in focus, much less keep them in the camera frame.

shorebird migration  No doubt this is a “bad” picture by traditional standards, violating all the rules I used to try to teach my yearbook photographers, but in a sense it captures “reality” better than a photograph following traditional rules would. When a flock flies by this closely, it is just a blur no matter how hard you try to follow it.

It’s only when they begin to land that you realize just how diverse these flocks really are,

Shorebirds landing

usually consisting of several different species,

 Dowitcher, Dunlin, Western Sandpipers

though this particular flock was less diverse than others I’ve seen, consisting mainly of the larger Short-Billed Dowitchers, medium-sized Dunlin, and smaller Western Sandpipers.

It seems truly ironic that the only time I can get a “good” picture of the migration is when a bird pauses to stretch it wings for a moment, becomes an individual,

Western Sandpiper

no longer a members of a flock. This individual beauty is a part of the whole and part of what attracts me, especially as a photographer, but only a small part. It’s unlikely I will ever get better shots than I’ve already gotten in past years, but I’ll still be coming back for years.

Despite seeing it over and over, I’m still awed by the birds’ flights. How can take that many birds take off and land in unison? Who, or what, decides when they take off or when they land? Surely a flock this size can’t have a single leader, can it? What keeps them from flying into each other? If that many cars started up all at once and accelerated like that you’d have to spend months hauling them away.

If I were truly a Transcendentalist, I suppose I would see it as a manifestation of the Oversoul, that Divine force that penetrates Nature. If I were truly a Taoist, I would probably see it as a manifestation of Chi.

Avocets in Burns


Although seeing the Sage Grouse Lek made my trip, my last day was capped off when I found several Avocets just south of Burns, a place I’ve never looked before. As I mentioned earlier the refuge itself is in the throes of a drought, but it had rained hard the week before I was there and the farms fields, probably because they been watered regularly during the drought, were all flooded, as well as the fields directly next to the sewage plant.

And, although I didn’t see the number of Avocets I’ve seen on the refuge in previous years, I got a lot closer to them than I’ve previously been able to do on the refuge. Even the sun seemed to be cooperating as I made my way home.

I usually see Avocets in shallower water than this, so I wonder if the water didn’t give them a greater sense of safety because instead of skittering away from me, they proceeded to swim directly toward me.


and then turn just in time to offer a good profile shot.


Although they seemed to become a little more cautious as they approached, they continued to wade toward me,


making it relatively easy to get some of the best shots I’ve ever gotten of them before.


In the end I had so many good shots that I had a hard time deciding which ones to put up, a problem I’d be more than happy to have all the time.

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.


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.


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


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.