A great egret stands in a wetland with trees in the background on the Oaks to Wetlands Trail at Ridgefield National Wildlife Unit in Washington

This environmental portrait of a great egret on the Oaks to Wetlands Trail is one of my favorites from my many visits to Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, the second-to-last picture on my second-to-last visit. I didn’t know it was going to be my penultimate visit, I arrived in innocence, unaware in a month a job search would begin that ended in a move far away. The trail is in the Carty Unit, a part of the refuge I didn’t visit very often as I so loved the auto tour in the River S Unit, I almost didn’t go since I forgot my tripod which made pictures in the dark of the forest difficult (I’d forget it on my last visit too). I’m glad I did since it turned out to be my last hike on this trail.

It takes on extra meaning for me now as in both picture and memory I look at my beloved refuge from a distance. Thankfully the look evokes fondness rather than regret, full of thankfulness for my many visits rather than sadness at their end. I knew after moving here the biggest test of how happy I was would be if editing old pictures brought tears rather than smiles, so I’m pleased to report that I’m both grateful for my two decades in the Pacific Northwest and thrilled about exploring the American Southwest.

The wetlands behind me, the desert before, my life begins anew.

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.

Death of a Salamander

Great & Northwestern

While I normally like to arrive before sunrise, I got a late start to my visit to the refuge in late February, as I was tired and decided to sleep in, arriving after noon. There was a great egret at the edge of Horse Lake, right at the start of the auto tour, so I pulled over and set up to take portraits since it wasn’t on the hunt.

Or so I thought.

Unfortunately my camera wasn’t set up for action as the egret suddenly struck into the water and brought up this northwestern salamander. I’ve rarely seen these lovely salamanders, and only when they’re being eaten, as the terrestrial form (adults can be aquatic or terrestrial) is usually below ground. During breeding season they move to the water to breed, and I believe late February is prime mating season for these salamanders at sea level, so hopefully it had a chance to pass on its genes before the egret caught it. I’ve never seen one this large, I was rather taken aback when I saw what it was.


When i first saw the white spots running from the head of the salamander down to its tail, I assumed it was part of its coloration and was confused when I later read that this is not the case. I couldn’t see that it could be any other species, but then I read that the white spots are poison that the salamander releases as a defense mechanism.

I don’t know if it explains something I found a little odd, as when the egret first caught the salamander it brought it out of the water and tossed it several yards away into the grass. It seemed rather upset and agitated with the salamander, perhaps I thought because the salamander’s long tail kept thrashing back towards the egret’s eyes, and I thought to myself, “Well, you are trying to eat it!”, but perhaps it was upset because it got a taste of the poison.

The egret grabbed and tossed the salamander multiple times, I was surprised at how long the little thing put up a fight. The egret’s first strike had opened a hole in the salamander’s side and some of its internal organs had come out, so it was going to die even if it managed to get away, so I wished I could tell it to just give up and its agony would end. Eventually it did stop fighting as much and the egret gave it a good dunking in the water, after which the salamander’s body went limp and its legs hung to its sides. The egret swallowed it in one fell swoop. I wonder now, although probably much too large to be killed by the poison, if it made the egret sick, and perhaps it might give the next salamander a pass.

Horse Lake

After I got over the thrill of seeing this magnificent little creature and the shock of watching it die, I reflected on how amazing it is that, just feet from where I have spent many, many hours sitting and watching and listening at this pond, an entire world exists under the water that I have little knowledge of and no way to observe. I would have never known this magnificent salamander was there if not for the egret (this wider view of Horse Lake shows the egret not long before it caught the salamander, just over to its left).

Above the water I can watch and learn, but the things below I see only when they are brought out from the water and into the air, usually as they die. That makes me a little sad, but this encounter did encourage me to learn about the salamanders as I knew nothing about them before, apart from the name. Their numbers declined by one that day, but the northwestern salamander population in general is doing well in its range on the western edge of North America, from northern California up through British Columbia.

Maybe one day we’ll meet on friendlier terms. In the meantime it makes me happy knowing they are there, even if I can’t see them.

It also made me happy to see that, a while back, one of my pictures was used for the good of salamanders, as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service used my favorite rough-skinned newt picture on their Facebook page to announce some steps they are taking to protect our salamanders from a fungus that is killing them elsewhere. I like how Flickr displays the usage rights I set for my pictures, as I set most of them so they can be used for non-commercial purposes, a long-standing tradition dating back to when I first started putting my pictures online back in the mid-90’s.

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

It Rains Sometimes Here in the Northwest

A great egret in a meadow in the pouring rain

It rains fairly often during winter here in the Pacific Northwest but it is often a gentle, misty rain and hard to convey in images. On this January afternoon, however, great big buckets of rain started pouring from the sky so I took the opportunity to show how predators like this egret, if they want to eat, have to hunt no matter the weather. If you’re wondering how the egret fared under such conditions, this happened about 10 minutes later.

I was playing off the shutter speed (to freeze the rain) with the depth of field (to keep as much rain in focus as possible), but I wish I could have had more depth of field. Hopefully it still conveys a sense of how hard it was raining.

My Former Home

A great egret wades in Taverner's Marsh in Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge

When we lived near Salem, Baskett Slough was my home refuge and the place I visited the most. In fact it may have been the first place I visited after we moved to Oregon but my memory is a little fuzzy on that point. However I’ve rarely been back since we moved to Portland as it’s now quite a drive, and my allegiance has shifted across the Columbia to Ridgefield.

Surprise Ending

Close-up view of a great egret's face

I spent New Year’s Eve at Ridgefield from sunrise to sunset. It was sunny and cold throughout the day and the shallower ponds had partially frozen. Near the end of the day I was parked near the start of the auto tour so it would be easy to leave before the gate closed. A great egret was hunting bullfrogs in the shallow channel beside the road and I expected it would be my last wildlife sighting of the year. Not a bad way to end the year.

A river otter breaks through the ice so it can take a breath

But then I heard a loud crack in the ice and looked down to see that a river otter had punched though the ice to come up for air. It didn’t stay long before submerging and swimming out of sight, but it made me laugh, Ridgefield giving me one last surprise to close out the year.

Surprise Ending

The egret had moved on, the otter had swum away, so I was about to pack up my camera for the trip home when a couple of hooded mergansers swam by in open water beside the ice, beautiful in the last light of the day. My goodness but the refuge was putting on a display. After a quick scan to make sure bigfoot wasn’t hiding in the bushes, I packed up my camera and headed home.

Mammals vs. Dinosaurs

A great egret holds a Townsend's vole in its beak as it prepares to eat it

I’ve met people who think it preposterous that birds descended from dinosaurs, a theory that dates back to the 19th century and the discovery of an Archaeopteryx fossil, as they think of birds as being small and cheerful. They might change their minds if they spent some time watching an egret hunt for voles.

As I’ve photographed birds over the years I was struck by how many of the feathers on a bird’s body aren’t actually used for flight. I began to wonder which came first, feathers for flight or feathers in general? This article by Luis Chiappe on dinosaurs and birds gives the answer (spoiler alert: it’s not flight). I’ve only started reading the article but it’s written in plain language and has a lot of information (and importantly, references) on the link between dinosaurs and birds, and how most paleontologists believe that some dinosaur species survived and evolved into the birds we know and love today.

I suppose it’s all splitting hairs to this vole, within seconds of being swallowed on a rainy January afternoon. I sometimes shoot hunting egrets and herons and bitterns with my biggest lens, to show that one life is ending in order for another to continue, and sadly I’ve only ever been able to photograph these voles in the last seconds of their short lives. I keep hoping one day to get a photograph of a vole just sitting in a meadow but for some reason they don’t stay above ground very long.

A Mouthful of Vole

Down the Hatch

Swallowed Whole

A Closer Look

A close-up view of a great egret

Not only was I fortunate to be able to photograph great egrets numerous times in December, but even on this day I had several opportunities, including full-body portraits as one caught numerous bullfrogs. There were times I saw egrets very close to the road but in each case someone else had stopped and, rather than risk spooking the bird, I continued past.

Late in the day I got my chance at a close look when I came across this egret at Rest Lake. It was mostly watching the water for frogs but occasionally if another car came past it would gently turn its head in my direction. That rarely happened as there was a sudden lull in traffic, but I spent a lovely twenty minutes watching it at close range before it finally took flight to chase off another egret that had flown in a ways down the shore.