Thursday, February 06, 2014

Snow Geese at McNary Wildlife Refuge

Snow Geese by the Thousands, along with cacklings (resembling small Canada Geese) and Lesser Canada Geese Visit McNary National Wildlife Refuge’s Burbank Ponds.

February 4, 2014

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BURBANK, Wa. -- From Highway 12 at 59 mph I, spotted a bumpy white blanket spread across the cornfield between the highway and the MNWR headquarters’ pond.
“Snow Geese,” I said.
 Nora the Schanauzer perked up and peered across my chest to look in the opposite direction from the geese.
  “Look at ’em,” Darlene said to the passenger-side window.
I exited at the Hood Park ramp, drove through Burbank Heights and took Lake Road down hill to the headquarters’ parking area near the ponds. Armed with a 500mm lens I followed Nora, on her 23-foot leash, along the paved path to the hide (for viewing birds secretly).
From inside, however, I did not see a single snow goose on the water. We left the hide and strolled along a birding trail toward the snow-goose blanketed corn field.
A recent MNWR news release reported that about 17,000 snow geese would be in the area.
Wow! I couldn’t count them. but they thickly covered the corn-field ground. As Nora and I crept closer, flocks of cacklings and Canada geese sashayed away for a dip in the pond. And the ear-buffeting goose honking rose several decibels, like motor traffic in an eight-lane tunnel, as we approached.
Not a scene to be photographed well without stirring them into a cackling cloud of launching geese. The idea of such an image tempted me. But we backed off.
Back at the truck, we decided to look for bald eagles and white pelicans at Ice Harbor Dam and Charbonneau Park.
We saw six pelicans and a dozen coots above the dam but no eagles at the park.

We spent an hour looking, however, and pondered looking for eagles at Hood Park. At the Lake Road turnoff, we decided to check for Snow Geese on the water again. A good choice. They covered a wide swath of the large pond close to the north side.

 I parked near a gated service road with an entrance for walkers and leashed dogs.
Nora and I strolled slowly on the sandy two-track that led to within about 30 yards of the pond.
In addition to the uncountable number of white geese, dozens of darker geese and mallards floated on the water and dipped long necks below the surface.
Four cormorants stood on a small log, and two red-headed female common mergansers paddled along.
The presence of so many geese, however, complicated my limited ability to pick out other species.
As we walked, I snapped photos.
Before we reached the bottom of the hill where the road turned to our right about 25 yards from the shore, the entire 17,000 snow geese and most of the darker ones rose from the water with a Boeing 747 roar of wings, a deafening cacophony of plaintive honks, and a towering spray of churned surface water.
Taken by surprise, I stood transfixed, bugged eyed and slack jawed.
I clutched the otherwise totally ignored camera.
As the birds rose, however, I recovered, focused and snapped repeated images as the birds circled the lake.
I kicked myself for missing the geese churning the water with their launch. I felt some guilt at causing their flight and started back to the truck. I paused after a few steps. My sense of guilt began to fade as the great swarm of white birds circled several times, coming closer and closer as Nora and I watched.
Eventually, after their third or fourth pass, swaths of the huge flock peeled off and to settle again on the water.

This went on until they all returned to float on the pond, but a few that waddled onto the shore near the curve in the trail.

I rationalized that Nora and I may not have sent the birds airborne. So, after a few minutes, we resumed our stroll to get closer to the birds. And they ignored us. We approached within a 30 yards or so of those on the shore and about 50 yards of those on the water. By the time we left, I had the usual ton of images for the day.
And from the truck, Darlene had seen and heard the thrilling swarm into flight of about 17,000 snow geese.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014


Winter Close-Ups: A Great Horned Owl, Great Blue Herons, Mergansers and Tiny Downy Woodpeckers

January 31, 2014

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As the last few days of January, 2014, filtered away, I gathered images of the usual suspects along Mill Creek, at Bennington Lake, at a thicket of locust trees between the two and .
It began this way on a foggy weekday afternoon as Nora and I approached a wooded area a short stroll south of Bennington Lake.
The faint silhouette in the gnarly, bare-limbed trees -- with two twisted trunks, at least -- caught my attention.
Could be an owl.
I approached slowly, with stealth.
A pair of great horned owls visited that spot the previous spring. They lingered in the football-field-sized thicket for weeks.
I captured close-up images of them, as well as some of a Cooper’s hawk.
Maybe I would get lucky again.
Maybe nor. A dark low-hanging fog replaced the brightness of spring.
Heck, maybe owls liked dull, dreary days instead of sunshine. Easier on their eyes.
Considering the dark and the tangle of shadowy limbs, I paused to increase my camera’s ISO to 3200. Better have a noisy image than none. I set the shutter speed to 1000th of a second and the aperture at f/6.3 for the 500mm lens.
I didn’t expect the owl to fly, but I wanted a sharp image of its face.
Nora continued to lead the way.
Then, as I looked down to check my footing in the tall grass, I sensed the outline of pointed ears on an owl’s head.
I froze. Looked up to search for the image.
I spotted the owl,
“Yes,” I hissed softly.
Nora sniffed beneath the tree.
I aimed the camera and searched among the dark tangle of branches. They foiled the automatic focus.
I adjusted to “spot meter” and located the owl behind in a cage of branches.
I moved closer, searching for a clear view. Nora sniffed at the tree trunk and marked a spot.
When I had a clear view I snapped away and slowly moved closer and closer.

When the owl flew softly to a tree 20 yards away, I followed, snapped a few shots and headed back to Mill Creek.


On the way, five or six downy woodpeckers flitted and pecked out larvae from the wild rose bushes.
I’ve heard they dig out tiny larvae from the red berries as well as fuzzy seed pods on the briar stems.
I managed several images among the berries.

Then one perched on a small tree less than 15 feet away. I snapped images of it for a good 10 minutes, while it combined cleaning its chest and wing feathers with examining the bark for snacks.

Finally, as we ambled downstream along Mill Creek in a sun break, we passed several common mergansers.
Some flew.
With wings flapping they raced on orange-webbed feet across the water’s surface, kicking up plumes of spray, to gain flight speed.

Then, near the project office, as the fog settled in again a great blue heron stood stock still on a rock, posing for photo a long as I wanted to take them

It’s not every day that a Great Horned Owl and a Great Blue Heron will pose so close for photos.

And downy woodpeckers seldom sit still long before flitting away quickly.