One of the beauties of the auto tour was if you sat there quietly, sometimes the animals would walk right by the car. Or even stop beside you, as with this hunting heron scanning the marsh beyond. With its back to me, a gentle breeze tussled the feathers atop its head, showing off the white strip of feathers they grow as adults.
We often think of predators as animals with sharp teeth and claws but I wonder if the owner of these yellow legs isn’t the creature that most haunts the nightmares of the fish and frogs and voles of Ridgefield. If you see these yellow kicks hiding in the shallows, best hope the bittern isn’t hungry.
A juvenile bald eagle calls out to other nearby eagles on a rainy winter morning in 2008. Rest Lake had frozen over during a cold snap but by mid-morning a steady rain was falling and soon enough the ice would melt. I was rather surprised years earlier when I first heard an eagle’s call, given their size I assumed they’d have a rather raucous call so I was a bit taken aback by the soft and gentle cry that escaped their fearsome beaks.
A juvenile red-tailed hawk sits in a meadow in heavy fog at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Washington. The telephoto lens is exaggerating the whiteout effect as it is picking up all the fog between my car and the distant hawk but it illustrates the point: for an animal that might normally hunt by soaring high above the meadow and looking for voles below, a thick fog changes the dynamic between predator and prey.
The fog didn’t have such an impact on an American bittern stalking the shoreline that winter morning as it looked and listened for small creatures both on the land and in the water. Sometimes it hunted by slowly walking up and down the shoreline, sometimes by standing still, but in either case the thick fog would not obscure the prey such a short distance away.
It’s not like Mount Rainier or Olympic National Parks, Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, not the sort of place you plan a trip around. It’s not scenic, there are no mountains, no beaches, no waterfalls, no old growth forests. But I spent more time here than anywhere else in the Pacific Northwest. I might have spent more time here than all other parks combined. Not because of what it didn’t have, but because of what it did: the auto tour.
There’s a mostly one-way gravel road that winds through the seasonal ponds and lakes of this unassuming little refuge across the Columbia in Washington where for significant portions of the year you have to stay in your car. Because the animals aren’t spooked so easily if you are in your car compared to when you are not, I watched birds and mammals behave naturally from close distances. I met this yellow-headed blackbird, showing off his acrobatic skills as he straddles two stems, at Rest Lake late on a sunny spring evening.
I stayed dry in the rain and warm in the cold. Relatively warm in the cold, I shut my car off when I stopped and sometimes I stopped for hours. I kept an extra coat to drape over my legs on the cold days, extra towels to drape around the car on wet ones. I started playing around with video towards the end once I got a camera capable of good video but it was too late for me to have taken very many, but those few videos joins thousands of pictures in my archives.
I’d be embarrassed to tell you how many hours I sat in my car and watched bitterns hunting at the edges of the lakes. Or watching herons and coyotes hunting voles in the big meadow at the end of the auto tour. Watching the eagles and swans at Rest Lake. Watching red-winged blackbirds, yellow-headed blackbirds, marsh wrens, song sparrows, common yellowthroats, American goldfinches, all from one spot at South Quigley Lake.
There are a couple of short hiking trails at the refuge, one only open during the warmer months when the cackling geese are gone, but mostly what drew me was the auto tour. Too much so I suppose, I knew I should explore other places more often, if nothing else for the exercise. But I kept having wonderful experiences so I kept coming back.
I haven’t been up as often the past few years, mostly because I was walking Ellie during the hours I would have normally visited the refuge, but Ridgefield I will hold in my heart for all of my days. Goodbye, I love you.
I normally go to Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge on Christmas morning, as I don’t have kids and usually don’t travel to see family. If it’s pouring rain I might have the refuge to myself, or nearly so, and it’s a contemplative time until mid-morning when the crowds show up. But this Christmas brought ice that kept me from going up, as it would not just be risky to drive there but they often close the auto tour entirely when the roads are bad. But I can at least post a picture from Ridgefield, a juvenile red-tailed hawk in February 2008, listening for breakfast from its perch on a blackberry vine. It’s the juvenile redtails (that don’t yet have their red tails) that hang out close to the road and allow the tight close ups of some of my other pictures, although I saw them like this a lot more back then than now.
At Ridgefield, many creatures prey on the Townsend’s voles that live in the meadows and marshes. Some predators like herons, bitterns, egrets, and coyotes swallow the voles whole. Others like this red-tailed hawk (above) and rough-legged hawk (below) have beaks designed to let them rip apart their prey and eat only the parts they desire. If you watch them on a fresh kill you’ll see them pull out parts like intestines they don’t want and cast them aside so they can get to the muscles and organs they prefer. It’s a bit gruesome and I always feel for the little voles but at least they die quickly, this is how these beautiful but deadly birds have evolved to survive.
I photographed both hawks on the same day, and in nearly the same spot, the rough-leg right as the sun was cresting the hill and the red-tail over an hour later in direct sunlight.
These Canada geese (or cacklers? I can’t tell the difference between small Canadas and large cacklers) were eating at Rest Lake in a heavy rain when they tilted their heads back to swallow, but the difference in the poses reminded me of people acting naturally before they see a camera but posing when they realize they’re being photographed.