It’s Hard Not to Imagine the Worst

I’ve only been going to Malheur Wildlife Refuge for four years, but I was shocked by how low the lake was when I went there recently, much lower than any time I’ve visited the last four years. I’ve taken some of my best shots of Grebes where Malheur lake feeds into Harney Lake. On this visit I found only a dried-up pool and a Great Blue Heron stalking the shallow waters where grebes used to raise their chick.

Great Blue Heron

I was told that the nearby Steens Mountains only had one-third of their usual annual snowfall and the lake would likely shrink even more this summer. There was no water and no birds on Ruh-Red road unlike previous years. Considering all the talk of Western droughts and Global Warming it’s hard not to expect the worse.

Strangely enough, though, the reservation itself was as green as I have ever seen it, due largely to the greater than usual Spring/early Summer precipitation and to cool temperatures so far this summer.

In fact, the grass was so tall that I couldn’t get a single shot of a White-Faced Ibis stalking the fields, though a scared up a few as I drove down the main road.

Ibis shielded by grasslands

The grass was so tall in places I could barely see these two deer staring at me a few feet away from the road.

deer in tall grass

The Spring rains were heavy enough that the north end of the refuge had water in the streams and ponds unlike the previous two years, and a small colony of Yellow-Headed Blackbirds seemed to be thriving.

Yellow-Headed Blackbird

To me four straight years of decreased snowfall and widespread wildfires last year seemed like ominous signs of Global Warming affecting the refuge, but the unusually green fields would seem to give cover to those who would argue otherwise.

To complicate matters, a brief review shows droughts are historically normal for Malheur. The lake is one of the few places in the Northwest where water drains directly into a basin instead of running off into the ocean. The depth and size of the lake is directly related to the annual snowpack. As such, its size and depth is much more variable than most other lakes.

Still, considering how important this fragile habitat is to birds and the four-year-long drought we’re suffering here on the West Coast, I can’t help but worry that long-term weather patterns will play havoc with Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, even if I may not be around to see it.

Common Tern at Malheur

Just as stopping to watch the Black Terns led me to see the Wilson’s Phalarope, stopping to watch the Common Nighthawks hunting along the creek led me to see this Common Term. In fact, my first shot of it was completely accidental; I thought I was shooting the Common Nighthawk as it skimmed the creek. As you can probably see it was a lot easier to focus on the Tern than it was to focus on the Common Nighthawks because, unlike the Nighthawk, the tern contrasted with the background (and seemed to fly a little slower),

Common Tern

but shooting the tern posed its own problems; these are definitely not the best shots I’ve ever gotten of a tern. The dark background of the creek caused most of the shots to be overexposed, resulting in a loss of details in the whites. Whenever you have a black and white bird you have problems maintaining the feather details in both the black and white areas, especially with less than ideal lighting.

Common Tern

Shooting in RAW and underexposing helps slightly to save details in the whites, but underexposing may result in losing details in the darkest areas of the shot (and, personally, I always want to see the birds’ eyes).

The best shot of the tern came when it started to fly out of the creek and got exposed to the afternoon sunlight,

Common Tern

but even in this shot the whites were overexposed and the blacks were underexposed because the light was coming from behind the tern. In shooting a fast-moving bird like this lighting becomes critical.

For instance, compare these with a shot I took several years ago at Theler wetlands (click to expand) several years ago with the same lens but a considerably cheaper camera.


Despite the limitations of the camera, this shot is considerably better than any of these (and it doesn’t hurt that this Tern actually caught a fish). The right equipment obviously makes a huge difference in how your shots turn out, but luck also plays a major part. It takes an awful lot of planning to make sure that the light will be just right for your shots (which probably explains why I’m not a professional photographer).

Despite getting lost in technical discussions like this, I go to Malheur to experience the refuge in a particular moment not just to take photos, and even during hailstorms and cold spells I’ve only had one bad day there (the day I blew a tire and had to cut the day short.) I still think taking a camera helps me to be more aware of what is there.

Hopefully the photos I share convey that sense of joy in a particular place at a particular moment in time. That’s still what matters most to me.

Common Nighthawks at Malheur

After spending an hour or so trying to capture shots of Black Terns in flight I took up a similar challenge as I drove along the creek running through Malhuer. I noticed a long-winged bird repeatedly diving in front of me into the creek bed. I had no idea what it was, motivation enough to spend an hour trying to capture shots of it. At that point I would have sworn I had never seen this bird before (and I had never seen it in flight), but I found out later I had taken pictures of the bird resting a few years ago.

I thought it been difficult to get shots of the Black Terns; I was soon to find out how much harder it was to get shots of this bird. First, the bird seemed to be the fastest bird I’ve ever tried to take pictures of on the move (I still haven’t been able to find any information on exactly how fast it does fly.) The speed of the bird and the lack of contrast with the background made in nearly impossible to focus on the bird in time to get a shot.

Usually the best chance for a shot is as the bird comes toward you, but these birds were obviously built for aerodynamics and the wings and torso were both quite thin, making it nearly impossible to focus on it, and not the background.

Common Nighthawk

Common Nighthawk

It wasn’t until the birds changed their flight pattern, though, that I was able to get a good enough shot to identify it. Instead of just flying back and forth up and down the creek, the bird suddenly started flying right past me, circling. At the time, I was pretty sure they just wanted to tantalize or make fun of me, but I suspect that is sheer human ego projecting its self-importance. The change in pattern did give me a better chance of getting a good shot.

First, the bird contrasted enough with the sky that my camera actually had a chance to separate it from the background. More importantly, the bird slowed down as it made its turn to fly back. That turning point was the best chance of getting a decent shot, and I got two, this one

Common Nighthawk

and this one.

Common Nighthawk

Either of them would have allowed me to make a positive identification, but the second shot gives a better indication of just how long and narrow those wings are.

Later in the campground, a young birder was able to tell me what it was from my description of the bird, particularly the distinctive white wing bars. And once I got a chance to look a these shots I could confirm that it was, indeed, a Common Nighthawk, though there’s nothing particularly common about them.

I had gotten pictures of them a year earlier at the Narrows Campground, but it is still hard for me to figure out how this bird can fold its long wings into such a compact profile while on the ground.

Common Nighthawk

The time spent trying to capture a shot of this bird and identifying it would have made my week-long trip worthwhile if nothing else had occurred. I’m constantly amazed by the birds I see while birding, particularly in places away from home.

Wilson’s Phalaropes Near Malheur NWF

Anyone who’s been birding for long discovers that if you stop for a while to watch a particular bird you’re likely to see other birds, too. That’s probably a corollary of the rule that the best way to bird is to sit in a good place and wait for the birds to come to you. I might even follow that advice if I didn’t have so many ADHD qualities. Of course, if I really liked to sit for long periods in one place I would probably still be fishing instead of taking wildlife photos.

Nevertheless, I discovered this beautiful Wilson’s Phalarope while taking a break from trying to photograph the Black Terns as they whipped by. I don’t see Wilson Phalaropes very often this side of the mountains so I was especially pleased to glimpse this one moving up and down the far side of the pond.

female Wilson’s Phalarope

Of course, an even more basic birding axiom is that as soon as you point a lens at a bird it will fly away, no matter how indifferent it had seemed before doing so.

female Wilson’s Phalarope

Not a problem, though, by then I was once again ready to focus on the challenge of capturing shots of the Black Terns. After another ten minutes or so of frantic shooting, I took another break and noticed that the Phalarope was on the near side of the pond, closer than it had been before it flew away.

male Wilson’s Phalarope

It wasn’t until I started processing these photos that I realized this was not the original phalarope at all. In fact, I wondered if it was even a Wilson’s Phalarope since it lacked the bright markers I usually identify with Wilson’s Phalarope.

Ten minutes exploring the web revealed that this was, indeed, a Wilson’s Phalarope, a male Wilson’s Phalarope, one of the few species where the female has brighter plumage than the male. That made me wonder if the male incubated the eggs since that’s the primary reasons females usually have less colorful plumage. Sure enough, a little more online research showed that it is the male, not the female, that incubate the eggs.