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.

Two Halves

Two Halves

I got lucky with the top picture: the soft, warm light of sunset, the frost from an unusually cold winter day, the perfect pairing of these two baby nutria, one facing forward, the other backward, and the one nutria eating a blade of grass while holding it in its tiny hands. Then they each walked off into the shadows and out of my sight. Nutria are not native to the Northwest but they are by far the most commonly seen of our aquatic rodents, and as you can see are able to give birth and raise young even during winter.

A baby nutria walks across ice on a cold winter's day.

A baby nutria walks across frost and grass at the end of a cold winter's day.


A close-up view of the rear foot of a nutria

Nutria are by far the most commonly seen of the aquatic rodents at Ridgefield, with muskrats being relatively common, beavers not common at all. There are enough clues in this picture to identify which of these rodents this is. The tail is the most obvious indicator, but the rear foot all by itself holds enough clues. A muskrat has white claws while those of a nutria and beaver are dark. Both beavers and nutria have heavily webbed rear feet, but all five of the beaver’s toes are webbed, on a nutria only the inner four.

Which begs the question: why?

I don’t know the answer but I do know this is a nutria.