Wildlife Photography: Birds of the East Walker River, Nevada

East Walker sunset. East Walker River, Great Basin Desert, Nevada.

Here is a slightly different angle for the LightOpt Photography blog. My wife and I teamed up on a quick camp trip to the East Walker River to check out birds in the Walker River State Recreation Area, a relatively new component of the state park system. I had passed by here on my excursion into the Gray Hills and thought we might try the campground for an overnight; it is only an hour from home. 

The campground sits on old pasture or hayfields of the Pitchfork Ranch which is now the visitor’s center of the State Park. The campground is wide-open space with several sites are close the river, and this evening the place looks rather full as we pull in. We do not typically do campground locations, appreciating the open public lands, but once in a while they make for an easy break – though we aren’t ever in danger of too much discomfort when out in Desna’s camping rig. Even now, with most of the camp sites taken and the crowd looking ready for a whole lot of motorized recreation, we consider heading back out of the park, into the backcountry. But we came to give it a try and quickly decide to settle into spot #10.

And then the drone of generators begins. I have never really understood the camp-need of endless power generation. We have one in our rig, but hardly find much use for it – we cooked popcorn in the just-as-useless microwave, if only to prove we could – the sound is ridiculous. I understand needing some extra power to prep dinner for a family, but the evening-long rumble from just about all camps is something we hardly bear. Anyway, I should not complain much, it is still nice to be out here, and I can look forward to the quiet of the morning, when pre-dawn quiet still reigns.

I was out early indeed, wanting to practice bird photography. Des is great birder and I have been looking forward to documenting, if possible, the various species we come across together. As I step from the camper, flocks of waterfowl are passing low overhead, their calls muffled in the feathered-beating of so many wings. It seems a good start.

I work my way into a riverbend where a grove of cottonwoods holds a Great-horned Owl pair. It is too dark to photograph, but I watch them until they move across the river and farther north. I turn and wait for a Red-tailed Hawk to move from her nest, maybe for a morning hunt, or to switch duties with her mate. I wait over an hour, as the sunrises, and only the songbirds and some Western Bluebirds pass among the branches above me. Nothing in today’s adventure of wildlife photography, but that is how it mostly goes.

Des comes across the fields to meet me, and we walk back toward the slowly stirring campground. As we pass another raptor nest, a mother Red-tail is guarding her roost, and then it is the little birds that spring to action. A Song Sparrow greets the sun and hurriedly gathers material for a nest as a female looks on. He splits time between singing for his territory and bouncing through the grass with twigs, though I cannot quite tell where they are settling in. A Downy Woodpecker gets up a usual ruckus, ricocheting from tree to tree and jack-hammering up and down the branches.

My simple favorite is the common White-crowned Sparrow guarding the fence as we enter the campground. I have a soft spot for the little passerines, the ones we see every day and practically forget they are there. This sparrow poses patiently and then drops to ground beyond the fence to forage for the sparse seeds of early spring.

I later find I had plenty of difficulty getting the focus and depth of field needed for good images. This something I need to work toward, knowing that capturing sharp, well-composed images of fast-moving birds (and other animals) is always a challenge. I am hooked, however; and the challenge will be a pleasure in the quiet moments among the birds. Thanks to Des for sharing this with me.

Bird Image List: Red-tailed Hawk, Song sparrow, Downy Woodpecker, Western Bluebird, White-crowned Sparrow. Links jump to the ebird.org information pages.

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