A Quick Return to the Sacramento NWR

We barely got back from an earlier trip to Santa Rosa before we headed out to Fresno and Phoenix.  It was too far to drive to Fresno in a single day, particularly since we had to wait until the mailman delivered some medications from the VA.  Fortunately, our late start was advantageous because we missed all the rush-hour traffic. Unfortunately, we didn’t reach Willows until nearly 10 P.M. 

Since Fresno wasn’t far from Willows, we had time to take a quick drive around the Sacramento NWR auto tour in the morning before heading out.  Instead of unpacking all our photo gear, Leslie and I shared a single camera, passing it back and forth whenever we saw something worth taking a picture of, so I’m not sure which of us took a particular photo. 

We heard plenty of Meadowlarks singing but didn’t get a single shot of one singing.  Instead, we got a shot of an angry-looking Meadowlark who was obviously tired of being photographed.

We didn’t see the large flocks of Snow Geese that we had seen a few weeks before, but there were small flocks throughout the refuge.

Killdeer are common on the refuge, but it’s a little unusual to see them wading.

We saw about the same number of Black-necked Stilt we saw on our previous visit. and they were obviously used to people taking shots of them, at least when you kept your distance and stayed in your vehicle.

I particularly liked the reflections in this shot. 

The highlight of the day had to be seeing this White-Faced Ibis near the end of the auto tour.  I never quite managed to get a shot of it in the kind of light that makes all those colors iridescent, but I was still pleased to sight one and get a few good shots.   

Seeing the first bird of the season isn’t quite as exciting as seeing one for the first time — a “lifer,” as it were — but it’s still a special moment.  

We still didn’t see the first American Avocet of the year on this visit. But we knew we would have one more chance on our return trip.

Final Shots from Sacramento NWR

In my last post I shared my favorite shots of our visit to Sacramento NWR. In this post I’ll feature Leslie’s photos.

This shot of a Northern Harrier leaves a lot to be desired, but since Leslie took more pictures of it than any other bird and still couldn’t get the bird or the light to cooperate, it feels like it deserved to be posted.

Other shots seem more post-worthy, though.  I joined the Sacramento NWR Facebook page and noted that the most often shared shots were those of Bald Eagles.

I thought this shot of the mature Bald Eagle was also as good as any I saw shared on their site, as was this shot of the immature Bald Eagle looking particularly regal..

It was quite windy the day we were there, as the feathers testify to, but my favorite shot of this sequence was this one taken a few minutes later.  

Hopefully, the immature Eagle learned why the adult Eagle chose a much bigger branch to rest on.

Leslie didn’t seem as impressed by this shot of a Black Phoebe

as I was, perhaps she doesn’t realize how many shots of a Black Phoebe sitting on a branch or railing I’ve had to settle for. Whenever possible, birds should be seen flying. 

Stop and Look

Like most people, I’m prone to dismiss common birds with, “That’s just a …” without ever really looking at it. If I were just a “birder,” I don’t think I would have taken pictures of the birds that appear in this blog entry.  They are all so common that they hardly get noticed; I suspect that if I hadn’t been looking through my camera I wouldn’t have even noted them.

Luckily, I was carrying my camera because these are probably my favorite shots of the day.  There were a lot of American Coots in the Sacramento NWR when we were there, but this one was extremely close and was too busy feeding to scoot away.

American Widgeons might be the commonest duck in the Pacific Northwest during winter, but I love this shot of a male rising up and displaying his wings.

Northern Pintails aren’t as common as Widgeons, but they’ve always struck me as one of the more elegant ducks.

Red-winged Hawks are everywhere, but this one seemed particularly beautiful in the early morning sunshine.

There’s beauty all around us. Sometimes, we just have to pause long enough to see it.

Let There be Light(room)

I just read an article where purists argue that you should only use what directly comes out of the camera and shouldn’t “Photoshop” it.  Actually, I’m somewhat sympathetic to that view.  I really don’t like when the colors in scenics have been manipulated to make them more colorful than they really were.  

I usually work toward trying to recreate what I “saw,” or “what I wanted to see” when I took the picture.  Unfortunately, all too often the camera sees things I didn’t see when I took the picture.  When I take bird pictures, I focus exclusively on the bird, which is all my brain sees, but the camera often sees more, or less, than what I see.

I taught high school Yearbook/photography for 20+ years and took several college photography courses, not to mention another year or two in art courses.  Those courses have shaped what I want from a picture and how I approach photography. 

My background is just one factor in my photography.  I have spent way too much on camera equipment since I retired 25 years ago, but the equipment has improved so much in that time that I felt compelled to upgrade regularly. I use the best equipment that Canon sells. I used to joke that my camera equipment was worth more than the car that took me cross country, and it was literally true.

Equipment improvement has been accompanied by equally impressive improvements in software.  I regularly use Lightroom, Photoshop, and ON1 on all the pictures I post on my site.  I shoot exclusively in RAW format to take full advantage of that software.

One of my greatest complaints with shots I get is that the highlights are blown out and you can’t see white feathers.  Because of that, I almost always set my camera to one stop below what the camera recommends, because it’s easier to restore details in dark areas than to correct bright areas.  

Here’s a shot from Sacramento NWR right out of the camera. Truthfully, it’s fairly close to what I saw myself because the Snipe was hunting in the shadows and the sky was very bright. 

Obviously I wouldn’t have posted this shot except to make a point. Fortunately we were shooting in RAW format, not JPEG. RAW format actually combines multiple exposures so you can make dark areas lighter and lighter areas darker.

Here’s another shot from the same sequence that was run through Lightroom, Photoshop, ON1 Denoise, and ON1 Effects.  It’s not a great photo, but it’s clearly a Snipe. and you get an idea of its size (if you know how small a Green-winged Teal is).

When you’re taking pictures of birds, light is not your only, or, perhaps greatest, problem.  The hardest thing is getting the bird in focus, particularly when you’re using a telephoto lens.  

Here’s another shot in the sequence where the camera had a hard time focusing and was extremely noisy because it was so dark.  I think the camera focused on the plants to the right of the Snipe, rather than the Snipe itself.  I used denoise and sharpening to try to realistically show the Snipe.

It’s hard to blame the camera, though, since the Snipe is a master of disguise and uses camouflage to stay alive while feeding in the reeds, making focus quite difficult.

The camera did a much better job of focusing on this Snipe because it was in the water and there weren’t any bushes nearby. 

I rarely see Snipes and good shots are even rarer.  So, despite the fact that the light is far from ideal in any of these shots, I was happy to get them. I know what a Snipe looks like in good light, so I attempted to recreate that reality by making adjustments in Lightroom, Photoshop, and ON1.  

They aren’t great pictures, but I’m pretty sure that there will be readers who have never seen a Snipe and, like me until a few years ago, think a Snipe is an imaginary bird meant to distract you so your older brother can have fun without you.


I took this shot of a pair of Mallards because I loved the lighting and setting and thought it was a great pose.  Guess who photobombed it?