Black Terns at Malheur

I’m probably more fascinated by Black Terns than you, but since I spent much time trying to capture these Black Terns in flight I thought I’d at least share a few of my shots. Luckily, it was a sunny day and I was able to get some good in-flight shots, like this one


and this one where the tern started hovering as they typically do.


Of course, even terns have to land occasionally (though not usually when I’m around), and that’s the best time to get a clear shot of them.


I really couldn’t see what they were trying to catch. I’m not even sure what is in this bird’s beak; it looks too big to be a bug and too small to be a fish.


Judging from how hard they hit the water, though, I thought that they had to be fishing. It’s hard to remember that just a few years ago I thought terns only frequented the ocean and I had never heard of a black tern.

Malheur Swans

Though I’m not sure if the results justify it or not, I spent more time and effort getting these shots of a swan family than any of my other shots. When I first spotted the family, they were on the other side of the pond, too far to get a really good shot with my 400mm lens.


So I hiked around the lake, only to discover in the meantime that the swans had moved to the opposite of the lake next to the road where I had started. So I spent nearly an hour wading through the wetlands when all I had to do was stay put.

Not complaining, though, since this is the first time I’ve ever managed to get a shot of swans with cygnet. In this shot the parent (with the dirty neck) was pulling up roots and feeding them to its offspring.


Photographically speaking, I wish one of the adults didn’t have that ugly green band around its neck,


and it would have been nice if the sun hadn’t been directly behind them the whole time, but this family portrait is better than most group shots I’ve managed to get of all my grandchildren at one time.


If you can’t get shots of American Avocet chicks, I guess the next best thing is to get shots of Swan cygnet.

Malheur Ducks

With the lake about a third of its normal size, there weren’t a lot of ducks at Malheur on this trip, but there were still a variety of ducks offering good photographic opportunities if you were patient enough — a quality I’m not particularly noted for.

I was actually a little surprised to find so many Northern Shovelers there since they’re a wetlands bird, but there were as many of them as any other kind of duck and I like both this shot


and this shot,


though I definitely prefer the action shot.

I was definitely looking for Ruddy Ducks since I seldom see them in the Puget Sound area and because I’d gotten some of my best shots ever at Malheur. There were several in these wetlands as I pulled up, but I only managed a shot of this one


before they all disappeared into the reeds.

I saw a lot more Cinnamon Teal on this trip than I’ve seen in the past, but they always insisted on silently disappearing into the reeds where it was impossible to get a clear shot of them.


This shot of a pair of Northern Pintails bursting out of the water as I drove down the road was my favorite duck shot of the trip, though.


Looking a Little Harder

Since the more familiar birds were absent, I spent most of my time at Malheur trying to photograph song birds which are generally much harder to photograph than larger birds since smaller birds survive by hiding in foliage and constantly being on the move. Luckily, I like the challenge of getting a good shot — or at least a recognizable shot of these kinds of birds.

Auto-focus is definitely a blessing to a bird photographer, but that’s not always a case with small birds hiding in foliage. The camera is just as apt to focus on a leaf as on the bird, and it has a hard time focusing on a fast-moving bird.

I’ll have to admit, though, that the camera saw this Yellow Warbler


better than I did with my naked eye. In fact, I couldn’t identify it until I looked at the shot on my computer.

I probably should have guessed it was a yellow warbler, though, because there were a lot of them at Malheur and most of them flew away as soon as I pointed a lens at them,


though occasionally I got lucky and found one so focused on attracting a mate or claiming its territory that it totally ignored me.


There are a lot of small birds at Malhuer when you’re focusing on seeing them. This flycatcher, a Western Wood-Pewee, I think, was totally indifferent to me, returning to the same branch after each attempt to catch an insect.


You also see a lot of birds at Malheur sitting on fence lines since that’s the highest point around. I first thought this was a Black Phoebe, but after a closer look I think it is an Eastern Kingbird,


a bird I very seldom see and might not recognize with a birding book.

Back to Malheur

I followed my trip to Bear River with a stop at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and it’s probably a good thing I decided to make several stops on this trip because Malheur is suffering mightily from our recent drought. I suspect that the lake is only about a third of the size it was when I started going there a few years ago. While variations like this are “normal,” I worry about the state of the refuge unless there’s a swing back to more rainfall soon.

Although there weren’t nearly as many birds as I’ve seen on past visits, there were still birds that I never see near home, though I did seen most of them at Bear River. There were lots of Yellow-Headed Blackbirds declaring their territory:


There were a few Wilson’s Phalaropes, though this seemed to be a single bird.


There was also one (or two) pairs of Sand Hill Crane,


which I saw on both days but in different places.

There were also several Bullock’s Orioles. I got a few shots of a male, but nothing to match the ones I got at Bear River. I think this may be the first female Bullock’s Oriole I’ve ever managed to get a picture of.


As long as I continue to find birds that I can’t find at home, I will continue to visit Malheur, though I probably won’t rave about it as much to my birder friends until it starts to recover from the drought conditions.

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,

Coot with Chicks

or a more demanding child.

 Coot with Chicks

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?