A yellow-headed blackbird stuffs his beak full of insects, destined for his hungry family back at the nest, as he straddles plants just above the waterline. Taken at Long Lake at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in May 2011, the yellow-heads didn’t often come as close as the more ubiquitous red-wings but it was such a treat when they did.
While on a visit to Ridgefield on a rainy Christmas in 2011, I accidentally took a short nap while in a pullout beside Rest Lake (I mean, given the name of the lake, hardly my fault) which meant I was lucky enough to be in the right position when driving past the meadow that I got to spend quite a while watching a coyote hunting voles in the rain. It’s what I loved about the auto tour, getting to watch animals behave naturally at relatively close distances without disturbing them.
These pictures are a bit bittersweet as while I got to watch the family at length multiple times that winter, my pictures from a couple of months later would be my last photos of coyotes at the refuge as they were shot to create a safer haven for the threatened Columbian white-tailed deer that were about to be transplanted. Thankfully the deer seemed to be establishing themselves by the time I had to say goodbye to the refuge so hopefully coyotes have been allowed back since.
I’m not sure the many Townsend’s voles in the meadows around the refuge missed the coyotes, although perhaps they didn’t notice given the wide variety of predators that ate them. It was always a little hard to watch through the big lens as one little life was snuffed out, even knowing it allowed another life to continue. I always hoped to photograph a vole on its own but I only ever managed to catch them when something else caught them first.
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.
I didn’t have much exposure to great blue herons before I moved to Oregon years ago, but the ones I had seen hunted in bodies of water, so I was rather surprised when I moved here and saw herons frequently hunting on land. This young heron, as you can see from its muddy beak, was hunting for voles in a meadow. There’s a little bit of blood at the base of its beak, I’m not sure if it’s from the heron or one of its victims.
Although I failed in my quest to find a bittern in the frost on the last day of 2010, the first day of 2011 rewarded me with a bittern on the ice — a hunting bittern on the ice. The day started out promising when I glimpsed a blacktail buck on the drive down through the canyon and onto the refuge at Ridgefield, but after putting on a show the day before the rest of the animals seemed to be sleeping in. While the early hours weren’t crowded, as the morning wore on the visitors picked up rapidly and the big lens attracted a small crowd whenever I stopped.
On the far side of the refuge, I like to drive slowly along Rest Lake to look for bitterns, so I pulled over to let an approaching car past so that I could move at my own pace. Even as I was pulling over I noticed this bittern down below in the frozen channel and settled in to watch. Within moments the bittern struck into the grass and brought out this terrified vole. Bitterns often like to dunk their prey in the water and so it gingerly stepped down the rim of ice, struggling not to slip, and then dunked the vole into the water. Or tried to at least, but failed, since the water in this section was still frozen. It seemed mystified for a moment and stood motionless before eating its meal undunked.
After taking a few environmental portraits of the bittern on the ice, I moved ahead just slightly to another nice location and waited for the bittern to come past. But a Land Rover came up behind me and the couple got out of their car (a no-no on the auto tour during the winter) to set up their scope to view the distant ducks and swans. Not surprisingly I didn’t see the bittern again.
When I got to the end of the auto tour, I was going to go around again but my heart sank when I saw a nearly solid line of cars between Horse and South Quigley Lakes. I learned my lesson from Christmas day, when I should have left when it got over-crowded but didn’t, and headed home. Ellie got an extra walk and playtime in the park, and extra hedgehogging as well, so all-in-all a fantastic start to the year for everyone but the vole.
One of the stories at Ridgefield this winter has been the American bitterns which have been putting on a show at several spots around the auto tour during many of my visits. I’ve always been on the lookout for bitterns so I’m not sure why I’ve had so much success watching them hunt lately, although it may have something to do with the fact that I spent far more time at the refuge over the Christmas break than I usually do. This bittern was mostly snagging small fish as it worked the channel beside Rest Lake, but at one point it stopped and started wiggling its neck side to side and then struck into the middle of the channel, bringing up this bullfrog. Bullfrogs themselves are voracious predators and, since they aren’t native to the Northwest, have combined with habitat loss to cause problems for some of our natives. This little bittern was doing its part to turn the tables and win one for the home team.