The Pink Horse

Pink skies reflect off a frozen Horse Lake at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Ridgefield, Washington on January 2, 2011. Original: _MG_2265.cr2

One of my favorite places at Ridgefield was Horse Lake, an innocuous seasonal pond at the start of the auto tour. To the left and right of this image grew clumps of tall grasses where bitterns and herons and egrets hunted. Dabblers like teal and pintails and wigeon congregated further left and right. In this open spot if there wasn’t much road traffic, and if you were patient enough, shy divers like scaup and bufflehead swam up to feed. The not-so-shy coots were always around, and often too the skies filled with cackling geese who wintered at the refuge in large numbers.

And once, and only once during my many visits, sunrise lit the skies a vibrant pink that reflected off the frozen pond. My favorite time to visit was on rainy days where you had to take it on faith the sun had risen, towels strewn round the Subaru as I listened to the pitter-patter of raindrops and the chitter-chatter of ducks. Because it was the start of the auto tour, there could be too much traffic for my liking on sunny days, and during the winter about every other day brought duck hunters and volleys of shotgun blasts. But in memory it can always be as peaceful as it was on this day and many others besides, as morning came to my little Horse.

Pink skies at sunrise reflect off a frozen Horse Lake at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Ridgefield, Washington on January 2, 2011. Original: _MG_2313.cr2

Herons Before Hedgehogs

A close-up of a juvenile great blue heron against a frosty backdrop, taken at Horse Lake at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Ridgefiel, Washingon on January 1, 2011. Original: _MG_1684.cr2

New Year’s Day in 2011 dawned with frost covering the grasses around Horse Lake, where I met this juvenile heron beside the auto tour at Ridgefield. During the winter I brought extra coats to drape over my legs so I could sit in the cold and watch and listen to the wildlife around me. On this occasion though a string of running cars soon pulled up behind, including my arch-nemesis the diesel pickup truck with its bone rattling engine, so I started up the car and continued on. A few hours later as I prepared for another loop around I saw a long line of cars stretched into the distance and decided to call it a day. Which was wonderful in its own right as I took Ellie for an extra walk and then we played with her hedgehogs in the backyard before heading inside to snuggle up with the cats. Wildlife watching, playing with the pets, my little slice of heaven and a lovely start to the year.

Dew Blue

A male blue-winged teal looks out from dew-tipped grasses at Horse Lake in Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Washington

Green-winged and cinnamon teal were easy to see at Ridgefield but not so the blue-wings, so it was a special treat to find this lovely fellow in the dew-topped grasses growing in Horse Lake early on a spring morning in 2011. I spent the day at the little refuge, arriving at 6:30am and leaving at 5:30pm.

The Quiet Blue Horse

A female lesser scaup prepares to dive on a winter day

There is much of me in this simple portrait of what may be my favorite duck. Not lesser scaup in general, but this particular duck. Over the past handful of years I’ve spent many hours sitting at Horse Lake watching a female lesser scaup dive for food. I don’t know that it’s the same individual from year to year, or even visit to visit, but I’m a little disappointed if I drive by and she’s not there.

Many photographers only like to shoot on sunny days but I also love days like this, the typical winter day of the Northwest, heavy overcast with an occasional gentle rain. I often won’t go to the refuge on sunny days since it brings out the crowds, but if it’s raining I can sometimes sit quietly and enjoy the subtle beauty of this seasonal pond without the constant noise of cars driving by (or idling while parked behind me). The scaup often hangs out on the far side of the pond but if there isn’t much traffic she’ll swim over and feed near the road.

While there are often other ducks present, she’s usually the only scaup. Perhaps she enjoys the solitude of the place as much as I do. She’s tucked her feathers tightly against her head, a sure sign that even though she just surfaced, she’s about to dive underwater to feed again.

Hooded White Horse

A female hooded merganser swims on Horse Lake

Reflections on a cloudy day turned the surface of Horse Lake white when I exposed for a female hooded merganser as she swam past my car. The auto tour at Ridgefield is one of my favorite places in the Northwest as you get to see such lovely wild animals like this up close and behaving naturally, frequently without disturbing them.

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.

Poison

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.