Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Water Water, WA

The plan was simple: we would head up to Portland for the day and kick around Multnomah County for a while. Even though we're up there practically every other weekend (and I work up there), our county list is pitiful and we were finally going to do something about it.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

We decided on Smith and Bybee Wetlands, where we were sure to pick up waterfowl, and where the trails around the lakes make for a pleasant stroll. Though the water level was higher than during our previous visit, and there wasn't quite as much activity as we'd hoped, we were greeted by a pair of Varied Thrushes just as soon as we got started. Later, we chanced upon four immature Bald Eagles -- one of whom had nabbed a fish out of the lake, only to be pursued over the treeline by three less enterprising siblings. But for us the highlight of the morning wasn't a bird at all.

Bald Eagles

Bewick's Wren

Maureen and I had had salamanders on the mind, as the previous weekend we'd attended a field trip to McDonald Forest with high hopes of finding assorted salamanders and newts. We'd braved the rain and cold thinking we might glimpse some new amphibians and were sorry when none had turned up. Today, though, luck was on our side. Maureen turned over a couple of logs, and under the second was the most cooperative Long-toed Salamander one could ask for. We gawked and admired for several minutes, and wrangled passers-by to share in our find. The salamander took it all in stride, finally disappearing into the loose soil only after everyone had had a chance to appreciate him.

Long-toed Salamander

In deciding where to go next, Maureen noticed a big green patch on Google Maps: "Oh, but it's in Washington." In our 9 months of living here, through all of our exploring, we've somehow never ventured across the border to our northern neighbor, literally on the other side of the river from Portland. Today we decided that Ridgefield NWR was worth the trip (bonus: every bird's a new state bird!). The refuge consists of a 4.2 mile driving trail through some pretty awesome wetlands. Unlike other driving trails we've been on, people are positively forbidden to leave their cars, except at a single photo blind mid-way through.

Red-winged Blackbird

Great Blue Heron

Northern Harrier

Ducks and swans were everywhere. There were also more nutria per acre than anyplace I've seen. Much of the action took place right beside the road, which was fortunate, since there was nowhere else to go. Fortunate for us, that is, though not for one frog, who was set to make a meal fit for an egret. This fairly robust and wily frog didn't make it easy for the Great Egret to put it down: the egret tossed it a little, maneuvered it, dunked it back in the water, and started the whole process over again. The dunking seemed like the cruelest part of all, like he just wanted to give the frog a false hope of escape. It took a couple of minutes before the frog was positioned just right, and that was the last anyone will see of it.

Tundra Swans


Great Egret hanging a most unfortunate frog out to dry

In a happier context, you might think the frog was just hitching a ride from his buddy

At the photo blind pit stop, a young Red-tailed Hawk perched over the parking lot was the star attraction for the half-a-dozen or so other photographers stretching their legs. The hawk was great, but to be honest I was more excited for us to find a much smaller subject, since I was itching to use the macro attachment for my iPhone. We didn't know what we were looking at at the time, but the insects we found were a diurnal type of firefly. Unlike it's beloved cousins, members of this particular group aren't bioluminescent at all, using chemical signaling to communicate instead.

Red-tailed Hawk

Firefly, probably Ellychnia hatchi

We've been paying more attention to lichens lately (Xanthoria sp.?)

And let's not forget the fungi...

The benefit of having everyone stay in their cars in a wetland is, of course, that the waterfowl don't flush nearly as easily as they would from pedestrians. This gave us an opportunity for some great looks at birds we're accustomed to seeing from farther away. This was especially true of a few individuals who preferred the channels alongside the road, rather than out in the open water: a sharp-looking Hooded Merganser, a pair of Gadwall, and a couple of Northern Shovelers dancing their feeding tango. I always love watching Shovelers feed, swimming around and around each other, stirring up prey in the vortex.

Hooded Merganser

Gadwall -- the most worried-looking of the ducks

Female Gadwall

Northern Shoveler

As we drove along one of the channels checking for waterfowl, Maureen spotted an American Bittern. Sort of. It wasn't the bird that caught her eye at first, but its reflection. The bittern was so perfectly camouflaged that it took her a few moments to find it among the reeds. Even though must have been staring right at it, I don't think I saw it until it started to move. It was a nice surprise encounter to end an impromptu trip to a new state. Certainly Washington state must have a lot more surprises in store for us, provided we remember to cross the border from time to time.

What did you see first: the bird or the reflection?
American Bittern

Googly eyes


  1. Bitterns...there's little else better. You all cleaned house there, geez. I'm pretty you saw all of the birds and other cool stuff there is to see in Washington. Ridgefield comes up a lot on another Pac NW blog:
    Tis' only a matter of time til' y'all nerds form a nerd herd.

    1. We did alright for ourselves, it's true. It's exciting to think of what else is hiding once we start pushing farther and farther north. I'm glad to know Ridgefield receives its share of love on the birdosphere, and I look forward to herding with fellow admirers someday soon.

  2. Nice lifer salamander!! Also, fantastically crisp shots of that Bittern. You guys have all the luck. ;)

    1. Thanks, James! You were making us so jealous with all those sweet salamanders you're finding in Georgia, that we just had to find some of our own.

  3. Those bittern pictures make me swoon! Gorgeous. We have yet to see one, but it is near the top of my son's must-see-soon list.

    What's your camera set up? I need to get a longer lens, or maybe figure out digiscoping. I just can't get shots as close as I'd like.

    1. Hi Julia! Thank you! That bittern is handsome, isn't he? We've been fortunate to have had great looks of one a few different times. I have a Canon EOS 60D camera with a Canon EF 100-400 mm IS lens. I just recently got the lens, and it is fantastic! Previously I was using a 70-300mm lens without a stabilizer. This new lens is in their higher end line, but a great investment. They just came out with an upgraded version (which is not the one I got b/c of cost). I've noticed the photos are so much more crisp, and I can get shots closer than before. We also digiscope, too (as you see with those Northern Harrier photos). We have a Zeiss scope with a 20-75x eyepiece and 85 mm diameter and use our iPhones to digiscope, which really comes in handy for those super far away birds.

      Good luck with your bittern search! I hope you get to see one soon. And have fun taking photos whatever set up you have!