Birding the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

We’ve just returned from an interesting trip to Santa Rosa.  Originally I’d been planning the trip to get away from the constant rain we have been having this Winter in the Pacific Northwest and to get in some serious birding — though Leslie may have had slightly different plans.  

We definitely didn’t escape the rain.  Although it was clear when we left home, the rain increased the further south we went.  Just south of Mt. Shasta, we rain into such heavy rain that I considered trying to find a place to pull off the freeway because cars were whipping by me at 70+ miles an hour while I was doing 50 in the slow lane because I couldn’t see more than 20 yards in front of us with my windshield wipers running at full speed.  My caution was confirmed a few miles down the road when we spotted several fire engines, medical vehicles and highway patrol cars trying to clear a multi-car crash scene that had traffic backed up for almost twenty miles.

Luckily, the weather had improved the next morning when we headed out to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. It wasn’t raining, but heavy clouds covered most of the sky, though the sun was just rising in the East, creating an Alpen Glow that made Leslie’s early shots quite beautiful.  

Leslie didn’t realize that she got a shot of an American Bittern in disguise mode.  She told me later that she was just practicing focusing the camera.  

As it turned out, Leslie got a lot of shots of birds that I didn’t see out my side of the car, like this Mourning Dove.

I did see the Black-necked Stilts. I couldn’t get a shot of them, but Leslie got a nice shot.

The light got increasingly challenging as we drove around the auto tour, but I was still jealous that Leslie spotted these three Snipes that I didn’t see.

In my defense, there was so much contrast between the sky and ground that these birds were nearly indistinguishable from the background until I worked with them in Lightroom and Photoshop, one of the benefits of shooting in RAW. Unfortunately, even Lightroom and Photoshop couldn’t make this shot as good as those taken in the good light we had 15 minutes earlier.

Birding Fort Worden

When I started birding at Ft. Flagler many years ago, that was the only place I would bird.  When Leslie accompanied me, we spent the rest of the day shopping for art studios and eating at favorite restaurants.  In the last few years, though, we have started going to Fort Worden after eating and shopping because we often see birds there that seldom appear at Flagler

For instance, I’m more apt to see Red-breasted Mergansers, like these three that we saw quite aways offshore, at Fort Woden than at Ft. Flagler.

The bird on the left is a female Red-Breasted Merganser, and the one on the right is clearly a male in breeding plumage.  The one in the center is harder to identify.  At a distance, I thought it was a female, but when I blew it up on screen it became clear that it was actually a male transitioning to breeding plumage. 

Some of my all-time favorite shots are of male, Red-breasted Merganser, partially because I seldom see them up close.  Unfortunately, that was the case with these three.  Despite waiting nearly twenty minutes,  they never came closer than this.

Luckily, this Double-crested Cormorant wasn’t nearly as shy.  It was so close that the photo was merged from two shots because I couldn’t fit it into a single shot.

It even cooperated by posing directly in the afternoon sun.

This female Belted Kingfisher, unlike most Kingfishers, who are notoriously shy and uncooperative, was remarkably cooperative.  I took this shot from the same spot I took the cormorant picture, but the sunlight was coming from behind the Kingfisher rather than shining directly on it.

I got another shot of the same bird on the way back to the car; this time, it was sitting on the same cement wall that the cormorant had been on, and the sun was coming over my shoulder directly onto the Kingfisher.

Trying to adjust the color of the two birds so they looked the same proved impossible, which reminded me once again just how critical the quality of the light is to photography.  

Back to Ft. Flagler

It’s been a long, rainy winter here in the Pacific Northwest, so we haven’t gotten up to Ft. Flagler and Port Townsend this winter. Cloudy skies were predicted, but I decided we would take our chances and go to Port Townsend.  I told my grandson I was thinking of heading up there, and he said we should stop and see him at the Firehouse where he has been working for the last couple of years.  So, even though it looked a little unpredictable when we got up, I decided I would go anyway. I’m glad we did because the firehouse tour was the highlight of our trip.  Luckily, Leslie got pictures of our visit and posted them to her Facebook pages because I was too busy talking and looking to remember to take pictures.

We arrived a little later than usual at Ft. Flagler only to be confronted by some of the coldest temperatures I’ve ever encountered there.  To make matters even more interesting, it was also one of the highest tides we have ever seen. If the tide had risen any higher, I don’t think we could have made it to the point, and most of the birds we saw were near the point, all huddled together trying to stay out of the wind.

The first and most common birds we encountered were Sanderlings running up and down the shoreline.

A little further up the beach, we began to run into Black-bellied Plovers still in winter plumage

interspersed with Dunlin, smaller than the Plovers but larger than the Sanderlings.

I didn’t go all the way to the end of the point because the birds were packed in so densely that I didn’t want to disturb them.  I did go far enough to get a shot of the Brant that are often found feeding on the seaweed found between the two points. 

Naturally, the light improved as we got back to the car, while small, mixed flocks of Plovers and Dunlin ran across the lawn

My favorite birds at Flagler are the Harlequin Ducks, but sadly we only spotted a single pair, and they were too far away to get a decent shot of them.  

Reviewing the photos I took, it was probably one of the more disappointing trips we’ve taken to Ft. Flagler, but considering how seldom we managed to get out in the last few months it was a very enjoyable visit. We definitely look forward to getting out more soon.

Ai Qing: Selected Poems

It’s been raining a lot during our visit to Santa Rosa and we don’t have the same programs to watch on TV that we watch in Tacoma, so I’ve turned to reading and polishing up photographs I’ve recently taken.  Strangely enough, I just finished a book I bought at Copperfield the last time we were here.  I was browsing the store looking for something different and found Ai Qing: Selected Poems.  In retrospect, I probably picked it up because the cover jacket claimed that Ai Qing is “one of the finest modern Chinese poets,” and I could only remember reading classical Chinese poets.

In the Foreword his son Ai Weiwei says, 

As a kind of faith, Ai Qing’s writing brought both joy and sorrow to his life. He sacrificed for his beliefs in order to survive under the harsh political environment. His use of vernacular Chinese and his love for simple truths make his expression a powerful reality; his inner truth makes his poetic thinking flow like a stream of spring water, even in the driest Season. In the most suffocating years, Ai Qing never betrayed his beliefs; it was he who showed me the courage needed when aesthetics and morals are marginalized. Against the aesthetic mediocrity of despotism, poetry is the key to wisdom, and the mortal enemy of banal politics. 

That might have grabbed my attention, too. 

The book is only 102 pages long (another reason I bought it ?) but I tabbed eleven poems that I wanted to re-read.  One of my favorite poems was “Daynhe — My Wet Nurse,” but it is too long to cite here. These two shorter poems do a good job of demonstrating some of the power of his poetry and make it clear why it appeals to me.

“Trees” reminds me of William Carlos Williams’s Imagist poetry, which I’ve always loved. 


One tree. Another tree 

Stand distant, alone. 

Wind, air,

Inform their isolation. 

But under cover of mud and dirt 

their roots reach 

into depths unrevealed. 

entwine unseen. 


The opening line emphasizes the trees’ isolation from each other.  They would seem less isolated if the poem had begun “two trees” instead of “One tree.  Another tree.” Despite this apparent separation, the earth itself unites these trees, perhaps in the same way that their homeland united the Chinese in their war against the invading Japanese in the year the poem was written. This is a simple but powerful way of arguing that no matter how isolated we appear on the surface we are linked to each other through our roots.  

“Autumn Morning” develops the same themes, with a little more emphasis on the sorrow of poverty-stricken villages. 


Cool, refreshing, this morning, 

The sun’s just risen, this coming, 

The village, sorrowful this morning. 

A little bird, white feathers circling its eyes,

Perches on the black roof tiles 

Of a low, squat hut; 

As if lost in thought, it gazes at 

The many-hued clouds bannering the sky. 

It’s autumn; 

I’ve been in the South a Year; 

This place hasn’t got the tropics’ vitality; 

No coconut palms surge to the skies; 

Already my pent-up heart is sad

 but today, as I’m about to go,

 I feel uneasy 

—China Villages 

Everywhere the same filth, gloom, poverty, 

But not one I’d want to leave.


The ambivalent opening stanza sets the tone for the entire poem.  The first two lines seem almost downright optimistic, “cool and refreshing,” but this feeling is quickly countered when he says the village is “sorrowful.”

The second stanza’s description of the little bird lost in thought almost sounds like a description of the poet himself, lost in thought. 

The third stanza explains why the poet may feel sorrowful when he compares this village in the north with his previous stay in the South for a year.  Yes, there are reasons why my brother spends winters in Arizona rather than Alaska.  Stuck inside in the far North with cold and little sunshine it’s easy to feel depressed and long for sunnier climes.

The power of the poem, though, lies in that last stanza where he enumerates all the reasons why people want to leave (i.e. filth, gloom, poverty) but his heart longs to stay.  This is home, his homeland and it’s never easy to leave home. We belong to the land as much as it belongs to us.