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.

Strike a Pose

A close-up of a young red-tailed hawk looking into the camera while preening its feathers on the auto tour of Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Ridgefield, Washington on February 9, 2008. Original: _MG_8524.cr2

A young red-tailed hawk pauses while preening its front feathers on a winter afternoon at Ridgefield in 2008. Although birds of this age have long since lost the the extreme nervousness they had after fledging, I like that its expression portrays some of the goofiness they retain as they experience new things in their first year. Not that they should be underestimated, they are already formidable predators as the blood around its mouth and beak suggest. The signposts near the auto tour were favored perches of the young hawks and provided opportunities to watch them at length, especially on rainy days if traffic was sparse.

A close-up of a young red-tailed hawk preening its feathers on the auto tour of Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Ridgefield, Washington on February 9, 2008. Original: _MG_8517.cr2

There Are Predators and There Are Predators

A close-up of the yellow legs of an American bittern as it hides in the shallows of Rest Lake at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Ridgefield, Washington on December 25, 2011. Original: _MG_6943.cr2

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.

The Beauty of the Auto Tour

A close-up of a coyote in the rain on the auto tour at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Ridgefield, Washington on December 25, 2011. Original: _MG_6249.cr2

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.

A coyote pauses in a meadow in the rain on the auto tour at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Ridgefield, Washington on December 25, 2011. Original: _MG_6194.cr2

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.

A coyote hunts for Townsend's voles in a meadow on the auto tour at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Ridgefield, Washington on December 25, 2011. Original: _MG_6021.cr2

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 coyote eats a Townsend's vole in a meadow on the auto tour at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Ridgefield, Washington on December 25, 2011. Original: _MG_6067.cr2

The Winter Rain

Large water droplets bead up on the head and neck and shoulders of an American bittern at South Quigley Lake on the auto tour of the River S Unit of Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Ridgefield, Washington in December 2009

On New Year’s Eve in 2009, snow still blanketed the ground but the more typical cold rain had returned, beading up on the head and neck and shoulders of an American bittern as it patrolled the edges of South Quigley Lake. I loved being at Ridgefield in the rain, sitting at one of my favorite spots on the auto tour with a bevy of towels strewn around the car to absorb the rain that would blow in. Your car acted as a blind so on days with poor weather and little traffic, as long as you sat quietly the animals would relax and often come quite close. This was one of two bitterns I was watching for a couple of hours that afternoon until the bewitching hour approached and I had to start the car to make it out before the gate closed.

Morning Calisthenics

A northern harrier stretches its wings backward while perched on a stump I called 'The Cactus Tree' at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Ridgefield, Washington in December 2009

A northern harrier stretches its wings on a foggy winter morning in 2009. I had seen it an hour earlier in this same spot but I don’t know if it spent the hour there or only returned to a favored perch. I’m happy I got some pictures of the stump I called “The Cactus Tree” as in subsequent days it fell over into the swamp.

The Quiet Ones

A juvenile bald eagle calls out in the rain while perched on the ice of a frozen Rest Lake on the auto tour of the River S Unit at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Ridgefield, Washington in January 2008

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.

Dressed in Blue and Green

A tree swallow perches on a mossy dead snag in the rain at Long Lake on the auto tour of the River S Unit of Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Ridgefield, Washington in May 2012

This picture resonates strongly with me of my former home in the Pacific Northwest, a paradise dressed in blue and green. A tree swallow pausing from its aerial hunt on a rainy spring morning, tiny drops of rain beading on its tiny wings. The blue of the bird, the greens of the moss and lichen, the blue of Long Lake below, the green of the lush grasses at its marshy border, the meadow beyond. When I first visited Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge years ago the lake was full of snags near the road but one by one they began to fall. This snag was the last one near the road but eventually it too fell.