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San Luis and San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuges

November 3-5, 2016
Written November 4+
Dear Diary, Friends, and Families,

 Why am I by myself, in the middle of the Central Valley, trying to take pictures of birds?  Because Marianne left me, for a weekend in Santa Barbara with Santa Catalina school friends. While she is with friends in one of the prettiest places in California, I am talking to birds in the remnant of a swamp (aka "wetlands", when it is California-expensive.)d161103_70_mintosantab.jpgd161103_72_msbuddies.jpg
I know she is having fun because she sent me a picture of the drive into Santa Barbara and one of her first dinners.  No picture from last night's Joan Baez show, but a report that the 75-year-old singer still can put on a great two-hour concert.  One for us seniors!

d161103_00_where.jpgMeanwhile, I have driven over to Los Banos to start a two or three day photography session.  The goal is to take bird pictures, as a follow up to a quicker visit a couple of weeks ago and to have fun on my own.  We'll see on both points.

d161103_02_sjnwr_center.jpgd161103_04_inside.jpgAfter the drive from Fresno, I went straight to the visitor's center of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex to find out where the migrating birds should be.  The ranger said that there were not many at the San Luis NWR, but Sandhill Cranes and others could be found at the nearby Merced NWR.  Armed with local knowledge, and after a tour of the information center, I headed out.
My first stop was the West Bear Creek Unit in the San Luis NWR, just in case the ranger underestimated the chance of seeing wildlife up there.  She hadn't.  I walked part of the trail, lugging my heavy camera and lens, and saw exactly one bird and two bees.  Sometimes the wildlife hunting isn't so good, but the walk was nice enough.
With that non-success under my belt, I headed over to the Merced NWR.  We had visited here a couple of weeks earlier and had indeed seen lots of birds, from small pipers and ducks to the big Sandhill Cranes.  My first order of business was to take a selfie to send to Marianne to convince her I was also having fun.  Actually, I was.

d161103_20_merced.jpgd161103_22_tree.jpgIt did not take long to see that the wetlands views were as nice as before (and would get better in the late afternoon sunset.)  Birds, however, were pretty much limited to ducks peacefully swimming.  Nice enough, I guess, but not likely to create great photo opportunities.

After an hour of sitting in a covered blind, I had seen little more than these swimmers. Leaving the blind, I startled these little guys (I need to learn bird names) and started to see a few bigger birds in the sky.  Nevertheless, the grass was more photogenic than the birds (imho).

d161103_52_tree.jpgThings improved, once sunset approached.  Not so much for bird photography, but for the evening colors.  Water reflection and colors are two easy wins for photography, and it was fun just being part of the show.

A lesson:  Take pictures of what's there, no matter the plan.  Sometimes it works.

d161104_02_sunrise.jpgd161104_02_amshooting.jpgOn Friday morning, I got up early enough for sunrise at the Merced NWR. It had been quite some time since I have been disciplined enough to catch the good morning light, and today's effort paid off.

As I waited for enough light to see any birds, the sun rising in the fog gave a great show.  I just kept taking picture after picture!

Eventually, there was enough light to show me that there were at least a few ducks and coots on the water, but these would not be special bird shots!  There was also plenty of evidence of spiders, with dew-covered webs blanketing some of the grass along the pond shore.  Interesting.  Eventually, there was enough light to show some of the local fall color.
The light also revealed plenty of Black Necked Stilts in their cute little tuxedos.  I also managed to see one little Hermit Thrush (I think) and a passing hawk of some variety.  For this diary, I have been trying to learn bird names and I now know eight or ten, twice my former bird vocabulary.  Photography and writing are learning endeavors.

d161104_36_highfly.jpgThe premier bird at the Merced NWR this time of year is the Sandhill Crane.  These birds can get quite large, but on this day I still had a hard time getting much of a picture.  First, the fog hid them.  Then, they simply stayed far from the road.  And shooting them in flight is a game of chance as far as lighting and (for me anyway) focus.  Oh well, these are plenty to remind me of a nice morning at the Reserve.

Once the sun was well and truly up, I headed to my next wildlife reserve, an hour's drive north of Merced.  This is the heart of the valley farm and ranch land.  I passed miles and miles of fruit and nut orchards, massive cattle feed stations, and agricultural industry of all sorts.  Someday I need to do a photo essay of San Joaquin Valley farming.  Some day.
Nestled among the miles and miles of orderly orchards, at the end of aptly-named "Diary Road", was the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Reserve.  The heart of the reserve is the four-mile Pelican Nature Trail, a walk that shows the contrast between today's orderly ranches and orchards and the original wilderness creeks and river.  (Historically, the San Joaquin River was large enough to support river boats all the way to Fresno, but today most of the river is dry, most of the year, feeding all those farms and ranches.)

d161104_50_onebird.jpgd161104_52_flowerbee.jpgd161104_54_beeflower.jpgI managed about two-thirds of the Pelican Trail and saw few birds or animals, except one or two fence-sitting black birds and little bees on little flowers.  No matter, it was a very pleasant walk and helped me reach my Fitbit goal of 10,000 steps!  I think I get extra credit for carrying camera gear too.

My last stop of the long day would be the San Louis Unit, back closer to Los Banos.  It was getting late and I was hoping for good shots of birds and good evening lighting.  Several of the doves helped out by posing on top of easy-seen fence posts.  A Redwing Blackbird posed conveniently on a branch as well.  I think these were a Lesser Yellowleg and a Killdeer walking in the wet grass and, of course, a fleet of little stilts.  All pretty cute.

My favorite bird of the day was this Great Egret.  She (he?) was hunting along the bank of the canal across from the road and seemed to enjoy posing.  I would drive a few feet forward, and she would walk ahead to stay even with the camera.  Worked for me!

d161104_82_return2.jpgd161104_84_return3.jpg As the light started to fade, more and more birds returned from their days out in the farm fields.  The larger birds would disappear down inside the tall grass, but some smaller birds chose to rest more visibly on trees and branches.

By now it was after sunset and I needed to leave before the gates automatically close 30 minutes later.  Of course, I could not pass up a few more sunset pictures.  In the semi-dark I got lost twice as well, so my last mile or two had me worrying about spending the entire night alone with just the wetland creatures.  At the end, the gate was still open.  Whew!

All in all, a long but fun day.  Before sunrise to after sunset, but a variety of California valley scenery, plenty of walking, and decent-enough pictures.  I am no professional, and my shots were not award-winning, but I could see how photography could become addictive.

Saturday would be another day.  I hoped for a rosy sunrise and lots of birds.  What I got was something else.

In Los Banos, there was just a hint of fog, but out of town the air filled with the infamous Tule Fog.  The cotton air blocked all sight, except glimpses of the two white lines along the center and side of the road. I had a 15 mile drive out to the Merced NWR and I took it very, very slowly.  I had marked the entrance to the park with the car GPS, but despite this advance planning, I actually missed the entrance (four times!) because I could not see beyond the white shoulder line and I feared a right turn off into the ditch.  On the fifth try, the sky had lightened just a bit and I was driving extra slow.  I saw a vague outline of the large, brown sign marking the Reserve and turned off the highway, as much on faith as actually seeing the entrance road.  But, it was there.
Inside, the first observation platform almost disappeared into the haze.  What was I doing out here?  Photography?  Hah!  However, at this point, it was continue my picture business or return to the fog-shrouded highway.  Hanging in was safer.  It was also cold, damp, and generally not what I had planned.  Oh well.

d161105_04_setup.jpgd161105_06_etherealtree.jpgI drove 2 miles around the circular auto route to the far side of the wetlands, hoping the fog would let up.  It didn't.  I set up my camera and pointed it into the void.  Eventually, I could see a tree out in the water, and tried a practice shot.  Kind of Asian, ethereal. Shot in color, but almost black and white. OK enough.

Meanwhile, I could SEE no birds, even though the Sandhill Cranes were making all kinds of "good morning" noises. When I had checked with the ranger on Thursday, she had said that the best time to see active cranes was in the early morning, before they headed out into the Central Valley fields.  Here I was, birds aplenty, just not much to see.

I began to detect a pattern.  Some of the time, after the crane noises got louder, a flight of birds would appear like ghosts out of the fog.  Some of the flights were noisy, and some were silent, making any picture snapping even more of a challenge.  Despite all this, the departing birds were mesmerizing and I found myself just listening and watching, more than working with the camera.  A very Zen experience.

After over an hour of this, I decided I'd had enough.  Great bird pictures were just not going to happen.  I strained to think of other visuals around me and only came up with a little dew-dropped spiderweb.  I mean, I will take pictures of anything, but there's only so much that appears on a foggy Saturday morning.

d161105_23_sign.jpgd161105_24_cattle.jpgd161105_26_coweye.jpgOn the drive out, I passed a field of not-so-wild-life.  I read a sign that noted that this field, inside the Merced NWR, is part of the care and feeding of birds.  Corn and grain are planted here or cattle are admitted to leave behind "gifts".  At least they stood still and close enough for an eye picture, just like a good photographer needs to look for.  I will take pictures of anything.

With that, I headed home to Fresno.

So, what was my overall impression?  I don't think I made any award-wining pictures, but I gained plenty of experience in my three-day visit to a part of California I really had not stopped in much before.  Valley fog can give nice sunset colors, or it can wipe out any color at all.  Good bird pictures are hard to get.  I have even more respect for the folks who get their wildlife pictures published.

And I think I detected another project:  Valley farming.

Stay tuned.

John and Marianne


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