At Least There’s Always Great Blue Herons

There’s always a let down when I return from an exciting vacation, but it’s hard to complain since I’m retired and at worst I’m stuck in front of a computer trying to decide which of the many shots I’ve taken best reflect the beauty I see every day.

The rain has continued since we’ve returned, but I’ve still managed to get out in the field with camera one or two days a week even if it has been cool and cloudy in the morning. Spring seems to be on the way, but we’re mainly seeing birds that have been here since Fall.

Luckily, I can count on Great Blue Herons standing guard whenever we visit Theler Wetlands

and even on the grayest, drabbest morning the sight of a Great Blue Heron landing in front of me

inspires me to take yet another shot.

Sometimes the fog allows me to get so close I can almost become one with this Chi master,

belonging here as surely as he does.

Leftovers

Not everything in life fits into neat categories — thank goodness — and these shots are just leftovers from our California trip. Debbie and I spent a considerable amount of time trying to identify this raptor without a positive identification, though we both thought it might be a juvenile that hadn’t fully developed its plumage. John tells me he thinks it’s a juvenile Prairie Falcon and he knows more about hawks than I do.

Here’s a shorebird I’ve only seen a few times but was pretty convinced it was a Spotted Sandpiper (lacking the spots, of course, because it’s in its non-breeding plumage.)

We made a quick stop on our way to Santa Cruz from Fresno but ended up seeing remarkably few birds considering the amount of time we spent getting there. My favorite shot would have to be this one of a Black-Necked Stilt.

This American Coot was alone and quite close to the road, so I had to get a shot of him.

Is that really a Mockingbird?

We visited a local garden while in Fresno, and I took my small Canon SX60HS figuring I would just be photographing plants and wouldn’t need my birding lens.

We’d almost finished our visit when I found a really birdy area, with birds flying back and forth between trees. This bird, which I didn’t recognize, repeatedly drove away all the other birds

like this Black Phoebe

away from its tree.

After getting my birding lens, I returned to try to capture better shots like this one of a Yellow-Rumped Warbler grabbing berries from the tree before the other bird drove it off.

It wasn’t until I took this profile shot of the unidentified bird that I realized it was actually just a Mockingbird,

a bird I’d taken pictures of the day before at Merced and many times before in Mary’s Santa Rosa backyard.

I’m still not sure why I hadn’t recognized it as a Mockingbird immediately, but I think the front view makes the Mockingbird seem larger than it does from the side. Secondly, I had never thought of Mockingbirds as aggressive birds since they were constantly being harassed by Scrub Jays at Mary’s house.

Finally, it’s probably context. I’ve gotten about a “first” before in the Pacific Northwest only to realize that the bird I was trying to photograph was a Scrub Jay, a bird I see all over California but seldom see in the Pacific Northwest. It’s not uncommon to have the problem when we see people in a different context than we’re used to. Students used to be surprised when they saw me in the grocery store as if somehow teachers only existed in the classroom and had no need of food.

Birding in Fresno

I’ve become so habituated to carrying my Canon with me when I walk that I do the same even when I’m on vacation on not really expecting to see birds. We went on several walks in Fresno with Jeff and Debbie and saw something I wouldn’t expect to see at home on every walk.

I got used to seeing Scrub Jays in California, but I was quite surprised when I realized that this jay was in the process of swallowing a lizard whole.

It’s far too wet for ground squirrels in the Puget Sound area, but they seem to love the Fresno area.

I didn’t recognize this bird when I first saw and thought I was adding another “first” to my list. However, it turned out to be a juvenile White-Crowned Sparrow, a bird I see fairly often at home, but only in adult plumage.

This one looked like a lot of different birds I’ve seen while birding, but I certainly didn’t recognize at first. I’m still not positive, but I think it’s a Orange-Crowned Warbler, a bird I occasionally see at home.

Birding hundreds of miles from home definitely keeps me on my toes and enriches my experience of new places.

Harriers in Action

As we were leaving the Merced National Wildlife Refuge, we spent at least fifteen minutes watching three Northern Harriers demonstrate how they got their name. Usually Harriers will move on once they spot you, but these three must have been hunting something special because one by one they buzzed the same brushy area, totally ignoring us.

Despite their appearance these are not shots of the same bird, but I chose to put them in this order because they all seemed to be harrying above the same shrubs. The first shot is a classic ID shot, with that distinctive Northern Harrier head.

Here the Harrier seemed more intent on scaring something into running than actually catching something.

After a few minutes of hovering, this Harrier moved on,

but was closely followed by another Harrier that seemed to have spotted prey in the same bushes.

Once a Harrier dove into the bushes my camera had a very hard time deciding what to focus on.

While the ultimate shot is of the hawk actually catching a prey, this didn’t happen in the fifteen minutes we sat taking pictures; everyone of them left empty-clawed.

With the considerable number of rabbits and ground squirrels nearby in much more open areas, both Leslie and I wondered what the heck they were trying to catch. I wondered if these were young hawks who were still mastering their hunting techniques, particularly since I’ve never seen Harriers this close together before. That led me to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology where I discovered that “In winter, Northern Harriers roost in groups on the ground.”

Back to Merced NWR

Not only did I see the Snow Geese I missed at the Sacramento NWR at the Merced NWR, I also got to see Black-Necked Stilt that hadn’t arrived at Sacramento yet. Unlike the Snow Geese, they were spread throughout the refuge. I got some nice closeups of individual stilts foraging in the shallows

and some nice shots of small flocks hanging out with some Yellowlegs.

Of course, it only took two nervous stilts

to spook the flock.

Photographing birds is always a delicate balancing act as I want to get good shots but I don’t want to stress out birds, particularly at this time of year. As it turned out, I hadn’t even seen the two stilts that spooked the stilts I was photographing.

A Truly Trumpless Day

Monday looked like the perfect day to get back to snowshoeing, and, strangely enough, it actually turned out to be a nearly perfect day. We snowshoed the Narada Falls-Reflection Lake trail which was between five and six miles long with a 500 ft elevation gain. It was rated “moderately difficult,” and it felt that way until I got home and had severe cramps in my legs.

The trail begins by following the creek up a rather steep bank.

Luckily, whenever I felt tired I was distracted by the beauty around me.

The trail is designed so that about the time you think you couldn’t climb another foot it levels off, and you have time to regain your breath before starting up, or down, again.

Glimpses of Mt. Rainier across the valley provided several opportunities to drag out the camera equipment and rest while taking a picture.

Reflection Lake wasn’t spectacular with six feet of snow, but I was happy enough to take a break before heading back to the car.

We were joined by a small flock of Gray (Robber) Jays looking for handouts. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a shot of them as they flew down to get food.

Although I took several shots of the mountain during the hike, I couldn’t resist stopping for an even better shot on the way down to Longmire.

It was exhilarating to spend most of a day simply putting one foot in front of the other, plodding along in rhythm with my heartbeat rather than sitting in front of my computer reading about the Trump’s latest fuck-ups, even if I did suffer some awful leg cramps when I finally sat down that evening.