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

Mammals vs. Dinosaurs

A great egret holds a Townsend's vole in its beak as it prepares to eat it

I’ve met people who think it preposterous that birds descended from dinosaurs, a theory that dates back to the 19th century and the discovery of an Archaeopteryx fossil, as they think of birds as being small and cheerful. They might change their minds if they spent some time watching an egret hunt for voles.

As I’ve photographed birds over the years I was struck by how many of the feathers on a bird’s body aren’t actually used for flight. I began to wonder which came first, feathers for flight or feathers in general? This article by Luis Chiappe on dinosaurs and birds gives the answer (spoiler alert: it’s not flight). I’ve only started reading the article but it’s written in plain language and has a lot of information (and importantly, references) on the link between dinosaurs and birds, and how most paleontologists believe that some dinosaur species survived and evolved into the birds we know and love today.

I suppose it’s all splitting hairs to this vole, within seconds of being swallowed on a rainy January afternoon. I sometimes shoot hunting egrets and herons and bitterns with my biggest lens, to show that one life is ending in order for another to continue, and sadly I’ve only ever been able to photograph these voles in the last seconds of their short lives. I keep hoping one day to get a photograph of a vole just sitting in a meadow but for some reason they don’t stay above ground very long.

A Mouthful of Vole

Down the Hatch

Swallowed Whole

The Quiet American

A coyote eats a Townsend's vole on a rainy winter morning

So it always is: when you escape to a desert the silence shouts in your ear.
Graham Greene, The Quiet American

When I first had in mind to replace my 2001 Honda Civic, I was thinking about avoiding the maintenance and reliability issues that come with old cars, about improved safety of new models, about getting back to the hatchback form factor that I love to an admittedly irrational degree, about maybe even switching to an all-wheel drive model.

But as much as anything what I really wanted was a nice quiet car for the auto tour at Ridgefield. And as far as Ridgefield cars go, the new little Toyota Prius c is at the top of my list.

It’s not a plug-in hybrid and would need to run the gas engine for much of the loop around the refuge, but that’s OK, where I really want the quiet of an electric car is when I need to move the car over very short distances at very slow speeds, such as when I was photographing this hunting coyote, one of a pair that slowly worked the marsh for Townsend’s voles on a rainy winter’s day. They were comfortable with me and paid me little heed, but even so I cringed whenever I had to start the car and disturb the stillness of the early morning.

It is easy to cross from one front seat to the next in the baby Prius, perfect for when I want to photograph from the passenger’s side of the car. It’s nice and short and narrow, good for parking along sections where there isn’t much room for other cars to get by. Plus it gets crazy good gas mileage in the stop-and-go conditions that define the auto tour (I typically move about in the 2 to 5 mph range, with a top speed of 10 mph or so, and lots of starting and stopping).

And best of all, it doesn’t make an annoying beep when it backs up the way the rest of the Prius family does.

But sadly our visit to the Portland Auto Show at the start of the year diminished my enthusiasm for the car. While the exterior of the car seemed nice as long as you spring for the alloy wheels, the interior seemed a bit cheap. But such is my love for Ridgefield that the Prius c remains in my top tier of cars should I decide the time has come to say goodbye to the Civic.


The Start of the Year

An American bittern brings a terrified vole from the grasses down to the water's edge to dunk it before swallowing it, but the water was frozen. Taken at Rest Lake at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Ridgefield, Washington on January 1, 2011. Original: _MG_2172.cr2

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.

An American bittern tries to dunk a terrified vole through the ice at Rest Lake at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Ridgefield, Washington on January 1, 2011. Original: _MG_2182.cr2