Greater White-Faced Geese

The Greater White-Fronted Geese at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge are vastly outnumbered by the Snow Geese, though I suspect they may be the second commonest bird there in the Winter.  They are still a personal favorite, though, because I’ve only seen them once outside Northern California —a stray that got hooked up with a small flock of migrating Snow Geese.  

Usually I am more apt to get shots of them at Colusa NWR, but when we stopped at the Sacramento NWR office, they informed us that flooding had closed the auto tour at Colusa.  Informed of that, we decided to make another trip around the Sacramento auto tour.  

We didn’t see too many different birds on our second round, but it did serve as a reminder of how different lighting affects photos.  Although the light in the early morning run was challenging, to say the least, this photo taken on the far side of the tour on our first go-round might have been my favorite of the day.  The alpen glow was reflected in the rich, golden browns of the geese.

Here’s a shot taken in nearly the same area on our second trip around the refuge when it was brighter than it was in the morning, but the sun was higher in the sky.  The first shot is straight from the camera, but I had to adjust the background in the second photo because the water was almost entirely washed out.  

This final shot was taken even later in the day with the sun shining directly on their white front.  It’s hard to believe these are even the same species.

It’s easy to forget how many variables are in play when taking wildlife pictures. I usually try to get an early start because it seems like you see more birds in the morning than you do in the afternoon — and because I’m used to getting up early to get to our YMCA Tai Chi classes. Perhaps if we didn’t live in the Pacific Northwest where you’re more apt to encounter fog than early-morning sunshine, I would be more conscious of the quality of light at different times of the day. However, looking back at the shots we took on our visit to the Sacrament NWR, it’s clear that my favorite shots were those taken at sunrise.

It’s Snowing Geese

One reason I like the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge is that both the driver and the passenger can see lots of birds, which isn’t always the case on refuge auto tours which seem built to mainly accommodate the driver’s viewing. While Leslie was seeing Bitterns, Doves, Stilts and Snipes, I was seeing Snow Geese, hundreds of Snow Geese, the commonest bird on the refuge during winter, and the attraction that originally drew me to the refuge 15 years ago.

As we drove to the refuge from our motel I was surprised how many fields were flooded, more than I’ve ever seen, and many of those fields were covered with Snow Geese feeding.  So, I worried that there wouldn’t be many of them on the refuge.  It was a needless worry, as we were greeted by fields full of Snow Geese.

Even though we were barely moving and the geese were hundreds of yards away, many of them took flight as we slowed to take pictures, 

only to land a few yards away.

Meanwhile, other geese that were much closer merely paused to look around and then went back to feeding. 

There was even an occasional, lone Snow Goose, 

but most of the time you see large flocks of them flying to or from nearby fields.

Like most birders, we look for unusual birds, or, at least, birds we don’t see very often.  However, there is still something awe-inspiring in seeing thousands of Snow Geese grazing in wetlands or flying overhead.

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.

Another Short Visit to the Sacramento NWR

We didn’t see too many birds on our second visit to Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge that we hadn’t seen on our previous stop nearly two weeks earlier.  

One exception was this male Blue-winged Teal, apparently a common bird I seldom see.        

male Blue-winged Teal

I’ve seen one in Washington and a few in Colorado, but I’ve never managed this good of a shot of one. When I have seen them they’re usually in the reeds, not in the open like this, and, sure enough, this little guy headed straight for the reeds where his mate was already feeding as soon as I pointed a camera at him.

Blue-winged Teal Pair

We saw quite a few White-faced Ibis on our trip, but the alpenglow emphasized this one’s brilliant, breeding colors.

White-faced Ibis

The biggest disappointment of the day, and the entire trip, for that matter, was a lack of American Avocets.  We only saw two avocets on the entire trip.  The last bird I saw on this trip was this American Avocet:

American Avocet with intermediate plumage

To make matters worse the sun was quickly fading below the horizon, and it’s clear that this bird was in the middle of changing into breeding plumage.  

With thousands of photos waiting to be edited and very few different birds to be seen, we decided to continue driving home rather than spending the night and making another trip the next morning.  

After another night at a motel and too many hours behind the wheel, I even decided to skip our trip to Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge the next morning, knowing that I would be able to visit a week later when I had a dentist appointment. 

I’ve been waiting too long for a trip like this.  It was a great trip, but two weeks is about as long as I want to be away from home, and 3,000 miles of driving takes its own toll when you’re as old as I am.