(Almost) Missed You

An American bittern sits in dried grasses

As you know by now, one of my favorite things to do at Ridgefield is to photograph bitterns. After having such great success last winter and spring, this year I’ve seen them mostly in glimpses and rarely had a chance to photograph them. I was tickled to have the chance to photograph this one in January, showing how well it’s coloring matches that of the dried grasses in which it loves to hunt.

I took the picture below last winter with my iPhone, just wanted a quick shot of my favorite place to look for bitterns, I took it with the phone since the view is similar to what I see with my eyes as I drive along. It’s a bit hard to see but there’s a bittern almost dead center in the picture, on the opposite side of the channel a few feet up from the water line.

Suffice it to say they’re hard to see but I’ve gotten pretty good at it. Once I get to my favorite bittern areas, I wait until there’s no traffic behind me and then let the car creep along as slow as possible as I scan the grasses for these elusive birds. I normally take our Subaru to the refuge but this spring I’ve been taking our Civic, mostly to see if I could tolerate driving a stick shift at the refuge.

The biggest problem I encountered is exactly this scenario. At these speeds, the car is right at the stall speed and it requires a lot of pedal work to keep the car front stalling out. It’s doable, but annoying, and probably not so great for the clutch. So my preference for the next car will be an automatic, although if the stick is a particularly good one, the irritation at Ridgefield might be balanced out by fun on the commute.

And honestly, I’m done talking about cars, starting now!

By the by, the body of water on the other side of the the berm is Rest Lake, and those white dots are tundra swans that winter at the refuge in the hundreds. The bittern above was also at Rest Lake, but at a different spot than this one.


A Good Year

One of a Pair

I knew it was going to be a good year for coyotes.

During a two week stretch in mid-to-late January, I saw a coyote pair frequently and took some of my best coyote pictures ever. But not long after I jammed up my ankle and took a two month sabbatical from Ridgefield. Even after the ankle healed, I’ve only been back to Ridgefield three times this spring with not a coyote picture to show for it. While it’s been an extremely wet spring here in the Northwest, many of the weekends have been sunny. The refuge gates are locked until well after sunrise and before sunset at this time of year, so the best light on sunny days is lost. And sunny days bring out the crowds, so I prefer to stay home and get in some extra hedgehogging.

I did see a young coyote on my visit a week ago. It was so close that getting a picture was going to be difficult from my angle without risking spooking it, so I just pulled over and watched as it hunted beside the road. But I saw a Subaru coming up quickly down the road, a car I recognized since we have one just like it. I knew they had seen the young coyote, and I also knew what was going to happen next. The coyote watched them approach and as they got on the brakes on the gravel road, the coyote bolted at the sound.

In the real world they weren’t going fast at all, just Ridgefield fast, and even a tolerant coyote won’t tolerate that.

This adult is one of the pair that I watched with such success in January, it’s coat drenched on a wonderfully wet winter’s day. And I know I said I wasn’t going to talk about cars anymore, but this is why I’ve been on the hunt for a quiet car. When I’ve worked to earn an animal’s trust, the sound of the gas engine firing up feels like a betrayal of that trust.

The List


I suppose I should mention that, after all the car talk, I’ve decided to wait until at least the fall before replacing either our Civic or our Outback, and maybe not even then. But I did want to have a list of potential candidates in mind in case something bad happened to either car and we had to replace them on short notice.

Replacing the Subaru isn’t so challenging as there are only a handful of cars I would consider, with another Outback at the top of the list. Choosing a replacement for the Civic isn’t so easy since there are so many potential candidates. So I created a mental list of all the cars that have interested me, divided up into four tiers with my favorites at the top, cars that I think I could buy almost sight unseen and be happy with, moving down to cars I like but don’t think I would buy.

The list has been fluid, with my head shoving cars down the list and my heart shoving them back up, but it has started to coalesce. When the time comes, a few test drives should sort things out for good, but here’s where we are for now:

The Favorites

  • Chevrolet Sonic
  • Subaru Impreza

The Challengers

  • Honda Fit Sport
  • Lexus CT 200h
  • Mazda 3
  • Toyota Prius c

The Longshots

  • Chevrolet Volt
  • Ford Focus
  • Honda CR-Z
  • Toyota Prius Plug-in
  • Volkswagen Golf TDI
  • Volvo C30

The Probably Nots

  • Ferrari 458 Italia
  • Hyundai Veloster
  • Scion iQ

There are a few vehicles coming out this fall that should shake up the list. The Subaru Crosstrek (shown at the top of the post) is the most intriguing, as it is the only car that could replace either the Civic or the Outback. Both the Subaru and Hyundai have been on sale for a while in Europe, while I think the Fords have been on sale there in regular form but not as hybrids.

The Up-and-Comers

  • Ford C-MAX Energi
  • Ford C-MAX Hybrid
  • Hyundai Elantra GT
  • Subaru XV Crosstrek

If the Crosstrek were available today, it’d probably be in our driveway, but we’ll see how the competition stacks up in the fall. And I promise that’s enough car talk for a while.

An Almost Car for the Ages

Bald Perch

I’m at that age where I should be having a mid-life crisis, so in addition to my practical little hatchbacks I should be looking at a mid-life crisis car. My choice would be the same as any other man’s — a Volvo.


I’ve always had a soft spot for Volvos although I don’t know why. I’ve never owned one, and while we had one while I was a kid, we sold it before I was of driving age. But I’d occasionally see a beautiful little Volvo hatchback as I drove to work, and was vexed enough to want to know more, yet I never could get a good look at its nameplate. I searched Volvo’s website for hatchbacks but nothing came up, and even looked for it at the auto show in January but didn’t see it. Perhaps we just missed it at the end of a long day. But I discovered one in the neighborhood while walking Ellie and finally identified my mysterious beauty — the Volvo C30.

Volvo doesn’t call it a hatchback, even though it has a hatch in the back, but never mind. It’s not only still being made, it’s for sale here in the States and could be mine for the asking. Both inside and out I think the C30 is one of the prettiest cars on the road, at any price, and it’s quick but not at all fuel-efficient. So I think it qualifies as a mid-life crisis car, just with a Boolish twist. Not a sports car, but nevertheless a car for my heart and not my head.

But even that’s not quite true. This along with the Lexus CT would be two of the best cars for my commute, and would be comfortable for those winter and spring days at Ridgefield when I sit in the car for hour after hour, waiting for those lucky moments like this bald eagle at Long Lake. I’ve been taking our Civic to the refuge the past couple of months, mostly to see if I could tolerate a stick shift at the refuge, but I was caught off guard but how much less comfortable I was by the end of the day in the Civic compared to our Subaru. We’ve had both cars for about 12 years so it’s not as if they are new to me, but I guess I just haven’t spent long days in the Civic before.

If the C30 was available in all-wheel drive, I think my head would follow my heart on this one, but sadly it is not. Rumor has it the C30 is being discontinued in any event, so I suppose it’s a moot point.


Thin Is In

A close view of an adult great blue heron against a background of red duckweed

A good Ridgefield car isn’t just quiet, it’s small. Thin in width and short in length. Height is a mixed bag, a low height is useful for shooting into the water, taller is better for seeing over grasses and shooting into trees. But narrow and short, yes yes yes, more please.

The auto tour at Ridgefield is a gravel road that starts off both wide and two-way but most of the loop is narrow and one-way. There are pull-outs strategically placed around the loop where you can pull over and sit to your heart’s content, and other places where the road is wide enough that if you pull over, other cars can still get by. But there are a few places I love to shoot that I can’t really stop without blocking the road, at least if I’m in our Subaru, but with a narrow car perhaps some traffic could get by.

One such place is the culvert where I photographed this great blue heron. I had seen it on previous weeks and looked for it every time I drove by and got some shots of it catching small fish, watching it with one eye my rear-view mirror with the other. On this oh-so-early morning it wasn’t at its usual fishing spot but was standing on a branch over the water, and better yet the duckweed had turned red and presented an unusual background. Fortunately there wasn’t any traffic at that early hour and while the heron never yawned like I hoped (apparently my yawns weren’t contagious), it did pose nicely and patiently against that wonderful color. Another car did eventually come and I had to drive off, but I had my pictures.

I never saw the heron there again.

Most cars have grown wider and longer since I last was in the market. But thankfully the sub-compacts are a hotly contested category these days, chock full of the little hatchbacks I love so much. And one of my favorites, goodness to me, is a Chevy. A Chevy! In the twenty-five years I’ve been driving I don’t think they’ve made one car that interested me.

And now they make not one but two!

The Volt is intriguing as, while not small, it is literally the quietest car I could drive to Ridgefield, at least the 2013 model coming out this fall, since I could drive the entire day on electric power, all without those infuriating artificial beeps and spaceship sounds the Toyota and Lexus hybrids make. I could drive nearly all of my work commute on electric power too, and since I despise noise I think I’d find the Volt a rather charming car.

Unfortunately it has very little ground clearance, which could be an issue for Ridgefield and certainly for Yellowstone and the Tetons. And it has no spare tire, so I’d be more hesitant to take it places with little-to-no cell coverage, which is all the places I go on my weeklong trips. And the layout of the car doesn’t work that well for us either, but even so if they had a version with more ground clearance and a proper spare, it would probably be my next car. And if it had all-wheel drive, oh oh oh! Oh oh oh! I’d better go and have a lie down.

The little Sonic shown below also has a low front air dam but I think it’s not quite as bad as the Volt. Not a hybrid so not especially quiet, but of all the sub-compacts, the turbo version is the closest car to my beloved 92 Civic Si. Not crazy amounts of power, but enough to be both fun and fuel efficient, and I’ve always preferred handling to horsepower in any case. It’s a bit pricey for a sub-compact and, the funny thing is, even though it was at the car show back in January, I wasn’t too taken with it then. The instrument cluster on the dashboard seems extremely gimmicky and I found it off-putting when I sat in it. And the car was too new for much to have been written about it.

The Honda Fit was the sub-compact that stole my heart at the show.

But what got my attention on later review were the Sonic’s stellar crash scores, especially the side-impact tests, even on the difficult federal tests. The more I read about it the more I was drawn in. Surprised too to learn that it’s made in Michigan, we lived there when I was a kid so I’m rather smitten with the American mitten. Eventually the Sonic shot up into my top tier, and depending on the hour and day, even sat at the top.

One nice thing on the Chevy website is that as you build out your virtual vehicle, they show you if there are any available on dealer lots in your area, and even show colors and installed options. One weekend the exact car I wanted was sitting on the nearby dealer’s lot. Fortunately for me I had been without a hot shower for a week thanks to a defunct water heater and I didn’t feel like going out. The Sonic was sold soon thereafter, so that temptation was gone.

I’m not ready to buy yet but I was still surprised by how strong the desire for a test drive was when I knew the exact car I wanted was at my fingertips. Tip of the hat to whoever hooked up Chevrolet’s website to their dealer network like that, a very nice touch.

You almost got me.



Long Fallen

When we moved to Oregon, my wife and I would sometimes go out for a drive just to get the lay of the land. One day as she was driving and I was navigating, we were heading south and looking for a good place to turn around. The map showed that we could take one highway into Junction City and then take a different route back north, so we decided to do that. On the way out of town we crossed over a river and at a glance I thought I spied a bald eagle atop a large tree.

I assumed it was a decoy, like those placed to scare off pigeons and geese, but a second glance confirmed that this was a living, breathing eagle. My first! I leaned back in my seat and wondered what sort of wonderland we had just moved to, where you could drive down an ordinary highway and see bald eagles in the trees.

We’d see more eagles over the years, including one on our honeymoon perched over the Rogue River, but they were mostly occasional glimpses until I discovered Ridgefield. Eagles are common there in winter and spring, most of the close views are of younger eagles but occasionally you’ll get a good view of an adult.

Even so, I was speechless when I made a return to Ridgefield in April after being sidelined with a bum ankle and found this adult on a dead snag in Long Lake, right beside the road. There’s close and then there’s close. I eased the car up behind another that had already stopped and watched the eagle in the wind and the rain. It hung around for another 15 minutes before taking off for the interior of the refuge.

Every time I think I should spend less time at Ridgefield, because I do spend an awful lot of time there, my little wonderland offers up a surprise like this and keeps me coming back for more.

I had another nice surprise when we visited the auto show in January. I had started to do some research before the show and had some vehicles in mind that I wanted to see, but my wife and I agreed just to walk around and look at everything. Which was fortunate because otherwise I wouldn’t have stopped at the Lexus booth.

But there it sat at the edge of their display, a gorgeous little hatchback, and I was smitten. I walked around to the placard and saw it was a hybrid, got pretty good gas mileage even in the city, and while a bit expensive wasn’t out of reach. It had some nice touches like a memory system not just for the seats but also the mirrors and telescoping steering wheel. It had the new knee airbags for both driver and passenger. Turn indicators on the side mirrors. Whiplash-reducing seats. And the staff didn’t think it beeped when it backed up the way the Prius does.

And there it was. A great car for Ridgefield. A great car for my commute. I had found my next car.

But then I got home and did more research and it’s luster began to fade. It turns out it does beep like the Prius when you put it in reverse and you can’t eliminate it entirely. And it also has a new pedestrian warning system that makes these oddball sounds when you’re moving otherwise silently in electric mode.

My quiet Ridgefield car was gone.

And that nice memory system that would make it easy for both my wife and I to drive the car? In our area it’s only available as part of a $6400 package full of other things I don’t care about. And despite the tone of the Lexus advertising, it wasn’t any faster than the Prius.

I’ve been mentally sorting the cars we look at into a tiered list, and suddenly the little Lexus started falling fast. My heart keeps shoving it back up the list but my brain keeps shoving it back down. For now the brain is winning and the Lexus isn’t even in the top tier, but my heart is OK with that as it’s convinced that with one test drive the little hybrid’s charms will overcome all objections, even that infernal beeping and the high cost.

My brain is equally convinced it won’t.

If the time comes to replace the Civic, we’ll see which one was right. My money’s on the …


The Quiet American

A coyote eats a Townsend's vole on a rainy winter morning

So it always is: when you escape to a desert the silence shouts in your ear.
Graham Greene, The Quiet American

When I first had in mind to replace my 2001 Honda Civic, I was thinking about avoiding the maintenance and reliability issues that come with old cars, about improved safety of new models, about getting back to the hatchback form factor that I love to an admittedly irrational degree, about maybe even switching to an all-wheel drive model.

But as much as anything what I really wanted was a nice quiet car for the auto tour at Ridgefield. And as far as Ridgefield cars go, the new little Toyota Prius c is at the top of my list.

It’s not a plug-in hybrid and would need to run the gas engine for much of the loop around the refuge, but that’s OK, where I really want the quiet of an electric car is when I need to move the car over very short distances at very slow speeds, such as when I was photographing this hunting coyote, one of a pair that slowly worked the marsh for Townsend’s voles on a rainy winter’s day. They were comfortable with me and paid me little heed, but even so I cringed whenever I had to start the car and disturb the stillness of the early morning.

It is easy to cross from one front seat to the next in the baby Prius, perfect for when I want to photograph from the passenger’s side of the car. It’s nice and short and narrow, good for parking along sections where there isn’t much room for other cars to get by. Plus it gets crazy good gas mileage in the stop-and-go conditions that define the auto tour (I typically move about in the 2 to 5 mph range, with a top speed of 10 mph or so, and lots of starting and stopping).

And best of all, it doesn’t make an annoying beep when it backs up the way the rest of the Prius family does.

But sadly our visit to the Portland Auto Show at the start of the year diminished my enthusiasm for the car. While the exterior of the car seemed nice as long as you spring for the alloy wheels, the interior seemed a bit cheap. But such is my love for Ridgefield that the Prius c remains in my top tier of cars should I decide the time has come to say goodbye to the Civic.


The Road to Madness

A close-up view of a a great blue heron's face and beak

In short, he became so absorbed in his books that he spent his nights from sunset to sunrise, and his days from dawn to dark, poring over them; and what with little sleep and much reading his brains got so dry that he lost his wits.

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote

Both of our cars are getting up there in years, and while they have low miles for their age, I’ve started thinking about what we should do when it comes time to replace them. I haven’t paid attention to the car scene in well over a decade, so my wife and I went to the Portland Auto Show a while back to get acclimated to the current state of the automobile. I had done a little research beforehand and so much since that sometimes I feel like I both know a lot more and a lot less than when I started.

The problem is that the car I want doesn’t exist. If you could take Toyota’s hybrid system and merge it with the new Subaru Impreza, you’d have my ideal car. I’d have a nice quiet car for Ridgefield to minimize the disturbance to my favorite subjects like this lovely great blue heron. Plus good gas mileage for commuting to work, with enough power for the ascent up the Sunset Highway, and Subaru’s lovely all-wheel drive system for when the weather turns wet or white. Not to mention the safety improvements compared to our current lineup.

Alas Subaru is keeping mum on any plans for hybrids so my dream car remains a dream. Not that we’ll do anything in the short term since no car made a clear claim to the crown, but at least I have an idea of what we might do if we had to replace one of the cars in a hurry. The Impreza in hatchback form is still the frontrunner to replace my Civic, and perhaps even the Outback, but a handful of other contenders caught my eye at the show. Will this Impreza one day grace our driveway? Or will it be the …