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.
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.
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.
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.
Another picture from 2011 and from another place near-and-dear to my heart, Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. This white-breasted nuthatch had snared a multicolored Asian ladybeetle (not native to the Pacific Northwest, I don’t think I ever saw a native ladybug in our many years there). While nuthatches do eat insects this meal I suspect was destined for the hungry maw of the babies in the nearby nest. I wish the picture had more depth of field but I was shooting as wide open as I could since I had forgotten my tripod at home and the light was dim under the canopy so I needed as much speed as I could muster.
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.
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.
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.