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Friday, March 29, 2013

Colusa National Wildlife Refuge: Birds, Black-tailed Deer and a Cottontail Rabbit

Without a doubt the light last weekend was the worst, most difficult to shoot in light I'd experienced since taking up photography. It's hard to describe. We had just arrived at the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, a 2 hour and 20 minute drive due north of San Jose, when a small bank of thin clouds covered the sun and the light turned to blah blech in an instant.

White Faced Ibis

No matter which direction we shot from everything looked dull and backlit. The only good light we saw that day was when the golden hour began. You can see it starting in that bottom panoramic picture. From then through sunset the light improved dramatically so skip to the end if you want to see pretty pictures.

In March there are very few birds and even fewer people visiting Colusa. We were surprised no one else was there. It was just us. We wondered why since the bad light had only just begun upon our arrival. It only took being there for a few minutes to realize why. While this hawk was hidden from view, one thing was more than happy to come up close and personal were dozens upon dozens (probably thousands) of mosquitos! As I was standing on the viewing deck I first noticed them buzzing around me.

Once we got in the car to drive around the loop there were hordes of them coming in through our open car windows. The loop is a large oval that cuts through the marsh. While you can roll down your windows to take pictures, the rules are you can't get out of your car and walk around once you're on the road. It makes it challenging but we always somehow manage to still get lots of photos leaning over each other or out of the sunroof.

I hoped the photos we would take that afternoon were going to be worth the West Nile Virus we were probably going to catch. I crossed my fingers and off we went.

Back to the light that day. Here's a picture of a White Faced Ibis I shot last April at the same wildlife refuge. It was sunny and bright out highlighting the iridescence of the bird's feathers and the richness of colors painted across its head, neck, chest, and wings.

But last weekend? The bird's feathers looked so dull. Which, of course, didn't stop me from shooting. After all how often do you see a an ibis successfully hunt crayfish when you have a camera with a 300mm zoom lens in your hand?

This happened in an instant and I hadn't had any time to set up. I was just approaching the opposite of the viewing deck at the reserve when it struck.

The funny thing is at the time I could only tell it caught something. It wasn't until I saw the images on my computer that I was able to tell what it had clasped in its curved, lavender bill.

Here it had just snapped the crayfish in two.

Because there were so few birds at the viewing deck Hubby had lost his patience and left to go get the car to drive the loop so he missed out on this sequence of shots.

Greater Egret

We also saw a Greater Egret. They're so easy to spot against the reeds.

The ways you can tell a Greater Egret from a Snowy Egret are the Greater Egrets are larger, have green colored skin surrounding its eye, and their feet are black instead of the bright yellow feet you'll see on a Snowy Egret.

Great Blue Heron

This Great Blue Heron was hunting though I never saw it make a strike.

As we drove along I would scan the mash lands and holler "stop, wait" or "hold on" when I'd spot something we could shoot. In the picture above I just barely saw them. Can you see who I saw?

Black-tailed Deer

Camouflaged in the reeds of the marsh were four Black-tailed Deer! Two were back near the trees and two were closer in a more open area. They calmly watched us for a minute before ambling off into the reeds.

Western Pond Turtle

We also saw a few Western Pond Turtles. This one stood out fairly clearly against the surrounding water plants. Which was nice because a lot of the birds and animals we saw that day were well hidden.

Cottontail Rabbit

For instance, I barely spotted this little cottontail rabbit. It was sitting just feet away near the side of the road but I think it thought it was invisible.

I could tell it was a Cottontail and not a Jack Rabbit because of its small size, short ears, and small hind legs and feet. Boy was it cute!

After a few minutes it got up, hopped a bit, then turned around.

As it hopped away I was so happy I realized I didn't care that the light had been a disappointment. This was the first time I'd had the opportunity to take some clear pictures of a wild rabbit so I was pretty thrilled.

Later, we did see some Jack Rabbits but it was already dark out and they ran away quickly so there was no chance to take any pictures.

Red-winged Blackbirds

This was also my first visit where flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds were clustered in the reeds and trees along the east end of the marsh. They were something to see and hear.

Long Billed Curlew

And it was also the first time I'd seen a Long Billed Curlew. It was far away and well camouflaged as it walked through the marsh. Do you remember artist Kristin William's curlew tea set I purchased on Etsy two years ago? The moment I saw it online I wanted it. I suspected this bird was a curlew but had to wait until I got home to research online and confirm it.


Finally, as the sun began to set it broke beneath the clouds just in time to light this pheasant, the fourth one we'd seen that day.

American Bittern

We also saw one of my favorite birds, an American Bittern. They're so funny, and very, very, sloth-like slow. It makes them easy to photograph because they literally freeze in place.

This one was right alongside the road and was very cooperative posing for us as it looked for dinner. We saw it make several successful strikes but I wasn't able to photograph any of them.

Black Crowned Night Heron

And at the end of the loop along the right side of the road are always a flock of Black Crowned Night Heron scattered about the trees like Christmas ornaments.

American Coots

We made two loops around the marsh that day. At the end of the second loop we caught dusk as the Coots gathered together in the water.

Sunset photos were taken with the NEX-5R

Soon those same pesky clouds that had thwarted our efforts the entire afternoon turned into the best possible sunset scenario. As the sun continued to set the clouds were painted intense shades of pink, lavender and gold. It made the whole day so worth it to be there at that moment.

I used my new Sony NEX-5R to take the sunset pictures. I would have used it all day except for that my strongest Sony lens is a 200mm and with wildlife I had to go with the strongest telephoto I had which was my 300mm Panasonic Lumix lens. What I really need is a 600mm zoom lens. LOL. Hubby said I can't afford one, plus I don't think Sony or Panasonic even make one.

I recently posted a tutorial about what I've figured out when it comes to photographing sunsets. You can view it by Clicking Here.

The moral of this story is: Sometimes the silver lining is in the sunset :)

If you want to visit the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge here's how you get there from San Jose.

Their website describes the refuge this way:

"The 4,507-acre refuge primarily consists of intensively managed wetland impoundments, with some grassland and riparian habitat. The Sacramento Valley is one of the most important wintering areas for waterfowl in North America. Colusa Refuge typically supports wintering populations of more than 200,000 ducks and 50,000 geese."

Colusa National Wildlife Refuge - Visit their website by CLICKING HERE
  • The best wildlife viewing time is in the early morning and late afternoon
  • Wildlife observation is best during mid-November - January
  • The refuge is open one-hour before sunrise to one-hour after sunset year-round
  • 4,567 acres, including seasonal marsh, permanent ponds, and uplands
  • CLICK HERE for a list of abundant, common, uncommon and rare wildlife sightings
  • Restrooms are available near the free parking lot
  • In the winter dress in layers and bring a warm hat and gloves
  • How to get there from San Jose: Take I-5 to the “Highway 20, Colusa” exit. Turn east on Highway 20. The Refuge is about 6.5 miles on the right. (Note: you will pass the Colusa Hunter Check Station turnoff a few miles before the Refuge.)

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