A Pond of Ice and Fire

A male bufflehead works through the melting ice of a pond

It never seems to matter, the tears I cry,
there’s a well inside of me that never runs dry.
The Weepies, “How Will He Find Me”

I visited Ridgefield a number of times as my Christmas break was winding down late in December. On the 30th I spent the morning watching a great blue heron by Rest Lake as the sun rose and then another a bit further on in a large meadow, then on another loop of the auto tour a great egret by the Quigley Lakes and ring-necked ducks and hooded mergansers in Bower Slough. After that the light was a bit high and bright for my tastes so I settled in to watch the male bufflehead above diving for food in a partially frozen Bull Lake. He’s elevated more than normal as he’s pushing through the melting ice in preparation for a dive.

Since he’d often swim to the far side of the pond to feed, to pass the time until he swam close again, I started looking back through my hiking journal. Normally it’s just a description of my experiences while out hiking or taking pictures, but sometimes the outside world makes its way into my writing. As I flipped through the pages I came to this section from the start of the year and burst into tears:

My last day of an almost three week vacation. Been great in many ways but worry over Emma’s health has left me a bit worn out. The refuge has been a welcome respite. She’s up to 9.5 pounds now thanks to the baby food, but her appetite waned a bit yesterday and this morning. Don’t know if it’s meaningful or not.
The opening entry in my hiking journal on January 4, 2015

I wasn’t that surprised that thinking about Em would bring me to tears, even though she had died a year earlier. I was over-tired and over-stressed and that often leaves me over-emotional. But I was caught off-guard because the tears just didn’t stop. I was already parked beside the road to watch the bufflehead, and since this pond is on the right side of the road, I had moved over to the passenger’s side. Since passing cars couldn’t see me, I let the tears flow until I cried myself out.

What broke me was seeing myself a year ago, almost afraid to even put into words a rising fear that our last hope of keeping our sweet little Em alive was about to fade, knowing now that the fear was justified and that we were about to run out of options and she’d be dead in three days. Sometimes it seems there’s nothing more cruel than hope: uplifting when given, devastating when taken away.

I realized then and now that is a sign of how blessed my life is that the death of my cat a year prior, no matter how beloved, was the source of my grief. The tears soon passed, the catharthis welcomed, and I laughed to myself and whispered “Emma, you were loved, you are missed.” Feeling better I resumed my tour of the refuge. Late in the day I finally saw a bittern after coming up empty on many visits, and wrote this in my journal:

Almost embarrassing how euphoric I was after finding the bittern, especially after being so upset over Emma earlier … overall a really fun day!
My hiking journal on December 30, 2015

And I wrote that even before the last light of the day, when I watched a heron and egret hunting as the sun set. I had to leave to get off of the refuge before the automatic gate closed, but as I drove past Bull Lake on the way out, I stopped for a few more pictures when I saw the bufflehead still diving for food, this time with the water painted orange by the reflections of the setting sun on the hills above the refuge.

The perfect bookend for the day, a day that started in ice and ended in fire.

A male bufflehead dives under water to feed as the water is colored orange by reflections from the setting sun

Diverse Divers

A male bufflehead starts to dive under water at sunset

Visit Ridgefield in the winter and you’ll see waterfowl diving under the water to feed, such as this bufflehead at sunset above, or the coot below, its red eye visible just above the water. I like to sit and watch them and have been struck by the many differences in the bodies of coots and diving ducks, even though they both spend much of their lives diving underwater to feed. There are differences in their bills, and their feet (ducks having fully-webbed feet, coots not), but my favorite difference is most visible when they dive.

An American coot starts to dive under the water, its red eye visible just above the surface of the lake

Both diving ducks and coots spring forward and break the surface tension of the water with their beaks, but ducks leave a vortex behind them at the start of the dive while coots do not, a difference that begins with their ends. Diving ducks like the bufflehead have broad tails that they spread out horizontally on the water before they dive, enabling them to push their tails down and themselves forward as they start their dive. You can see the pattern of their tail feathers, shown below as water flips off the bufflehead’s tail as he finishes the dive, in the water behind the duck in the first picture.

A male bufflehead's tail flips water as he dives under the water

Compare the bufflehead’s tail above to the coot’s below and you’ll see the coot has a stubby little tail and can’t use it to push forward like the diving ducks can. While it might seem that the diving ducks have solved the diving problem much more efficiently than the coots, I should point out that the coots at Ridgefield far outnumber any species of diving duck at the refuge.

The tail end of an American coot's dive

A trait they share in common is that they have to get a long run across the water to take to the air, so if a bald eagle attacks, they prefer to dive under the water as a means of escape. It’s usually effective, but sometimes you’ll see an eagle keep flying over a duck or coot repeatedly until its prey tires and surfaces at just the wrong moment and is captured in the eagle’s talons. I’ve seen eagles with a variety of waterfowl in their talons, but coots more than any others, not surprising given their large numbers.

Last Light

A great egret hunts for bullfrogs in the fading light

A great egret hunts in the last light of the day. The sun was setting but its direct rays were already blocked in this channel, leaving a nice soft light. I didn’t expect the egret to catch much but it caught three bullfrogs in quick succession. I don’t know how many more it caught before calling it quits as at that point I had to leave both because the light was gone and to get out of the refuge before the automatic gate closed for the night.

A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall

A ring-necked duck swims in a heavy rain on Bull Lake

I was sitting next to Bull Lake for a while, watching a male bufflehead diving for food and photographing him whenever he swam close. I’ve been wanting to take more environmental portraits so when he moved a ways off I turned my lens to this distant ring-necked duck as the rain moved in. I was happy enough with the early pics but then the rain turned heavy and pounded the water in large drops. Ducks are built for the wet of course but even so I felt a bit sorry for him as the water exploded around him. The hard rain lasted only seconds, then he and the other ducks resumed their feeding.

If you’d like a closer view of what a ring-necked duck looks like, I took this picture almost a year earlier just one lake over. It was also raining, but only lightly.

House on the Lake

Orange reflections on the surface of Bull Lake

On December 30th I was at Ridgefield photographing a heron and egret as the sun began to set. They were both down in a channel slightly below the road so they fell into shadow before the surrounding area. I drove to the start of Bull Lake and watched a bufflehead diving for food until he too was no longer lit by the setting sun. I was about to call it a day when I noticed one section of the lake was a brilliant orange, a reflection from a house high on the hill above the refuge that was still lit by the rays of the sun.

I decided to use the reflections to play around with some abstracts, starting with a completely de-focused image, but got no further as when I went to adjust the focus the colors faded. When I looked up I saw that even the hills were no longer lit so I drove the short distance to the parking lot and packed up my gear and headed home. I was sick on New Year’s Eve and didn’t head out, so this inadvertently ended up being my last picture of 2015.

High Water

A nutria feeds in Bull Lake in front of a partially submerged sign

We set a record for the wettest December ever when we were only three weeks into the month, and it has often rained since then, so it is no surprise that the water levels at Ridgefield are a little high. But not nearly so much as this picture would suggest, that sign is back near a hunter’s blind near the shore of Bull Lake, which itself is managed to mimic the flood plains of the Columbia before the dams went in. An unusually hot and dry summer left us with little snowpack in the mountains and we haven’t seen the widespread flooding we got when I moved here almost twenty years ago.

I took advantage of a two week vacation from work to return to Ridgefield (and going out to do photography in general) after a year’s absence. I’ve been up there six times so far and will probably go a few more times before it is time to head back to work. I’ve had a lot of fun and mostly photographed animals I’ve photographed many times before, biggest surprise was finding a short-eared owl up close, but I’ve been more surprised by what I haven’t seen: mammals apart from the ever-present nutria, and more importantly, my beloved bitterns.

I knew I was going to be hard-pressed to find bitterns when I drove by Rest Lake, which has by far been my best spot to find them the past few years, and saw that the way the water and the plants are in that area, the bitterns would be a lot more exposed than they like to be. I looked for them on every visit but didn’t see a single one. I still have a lot of old pictures to edit and get back online so regardless bittern pictures will be coming.

It was good to be back, the key will be to keep the momentum going and keep heading out once I’m back at work, as it is going to be a hectic month or two.

Surviving and Not Surviving into the New Year

Surviving into the New Year

A shoveler swims past late in the day on New Year’s Eve of 2014, meaning she likely survived into the new year. The little bullfrog below almost made it into the new year but an egret plucked it from the shadows shortly before sunset. The bullfrogs move pretty slowly in the cold of winter and if spotted are easy pickings for the egrets and herons and bitterns that patrol these shores.

Not Surviving into the New Year

When Two Frogs Love Each Other Very Much …

Two bullfrogs mating while floating in the water

These mating bullfrogs were serenely floating in the water while around them was chaos, with males playing leapfrog and wrestling each other into submission and croaking loudly. The male here is the one on top with his characteristic yellow throat and large tympani (the eardrums, the big circles behind the eyes). The water was mostly still but there was a subtle current and they both used their webbed rear feet to control their speed and balance. They don’t have webbing on their front toes, so the female used her front legs to maintain balance while the male has his wrapped around her body.

Ring-necked Thieves

One ring-necked duck chases another to try and steal his food

Sometimes animal behavior seems all too familiar to our own.

A small flock of ring-necked ducks was diving under the shallow waters of Bull Lake to feed, sometimes bringing up what I’m guessing is the root of an aquatic plant. Whatever it was, the ducks were very fond of it, and the one that surfaced with it would swim away from the others while trying to quickly eat it, all while any nearby ducks would try to swim over and steal it and eat it for themselves. I wasn’t sure which of these two males actually surfaced with the plant but the chase was on.

While in a mad dash to escape with his food, the ring-neck swam directly over a lesser scaup as she was surfacing, leaving her rather startled but none the worse for wear. He held onto his prize and was able to eat it at last.


Collision Course