With the new job starting — today, as you read this — I’ve been trying to compress some things I’d planned on doing into the time left before it starts, so it’s been busy as I’ve tried to clear the decks for going back to work. That said, I decided to take a day last week and make a day trip up to a couple of the more northern refuges, Colusa and Sacramento NWR. These refuges are about a 2 1/2 hour drive from the house, compared to 2 hours for Merced and 90 minutes for San Luis NWR, but for some reason, that extra half an hour or so makes the drive feel really long to me. Sacramento NWR, near Willows, is as far as I’m willing to go on a day trip and I’ll typically only do that once a season. My preference is to make it an overnight or two night trip, but I don’t know when I’ll be able to set that up and I wanted to get the visit in while I could.

This involved setting an alarm for way early, sneaking out of the bedroom and into the shower while minimizing disturbing Laurie, and then getting out the door as quickly and quietly as possible. When day tripping I can usually be out of the house in about 30 minutes and I hit the pavement just as the first light was starting to tint the sky.

That got me into Sacramento NWR around 9AM. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Sacramento Wildlife Refuge; it’s large, it’s really productive and it’s got huge winter populations of geese and ducks, but it’s — not really pretty and I don’t find it very photogenic. It’s a place where you can get really good access to the birds, but many of the ponds have edges of brush and reeds that are only intermittently mown to give viewing access. This is good for the birds to minimize the stress of their reacting to people, but it can limit the photographic options.

It’s also one of the refuges that has a strong “stay in your car” policy. I fully support that because it’s good for the birds and limits the ability of the idiots and naive from scaring away the flocks by running around, it means all of the imaging happens from your car blind (i.e from your seat out the window. That’s not as bad with the Fuji system I have now because it’s light enough that hand holding is feasible, but I’ve found in my testing that attempting to take video at 500mm handheld is an exercise in futility.

One goal of this trip was to experiment in techniques to make this work; I tried out a new thing, a window-mounted camera mount, with some success but more frustration. I could actually shoot stationary birds, but it required me to use the live view on the back instead of the viewfinder, and the window isn’t level and the mount used a pan head, so none of my horizons were level. I think with some hacking I can make this work, swapping in a ballhead and a bit of padding to level it out. I did take these images of a white-crowned sparrow using it; I found it new and awkward but usable.

My first pass through Sacramento brought me a number of interesting birds, and almost no photos. First bird I saw was a Peregrine Falcon, which I commonly see here, in a tree on the wrong side of the car and backlit. That sort of summed up the morning. Near the end of the trip through the auto-tour I did run into a group of turkey vultures on a carcass, with a raven attempting to join in, while nearby I saw a gull hanging out as well, although the gull seemed to have really dark wings. It was far enough away that I really couldn’t ID the bird so I snapped off some images so I could review it again at home where I have my references.

Bald Eagle, Raven and Turkey Vultures on a carcass, Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

So imagine my surprise when I get home, load up the images, and take a look, and realize that my “gull” with white head and dark wings is actually a bald eagle on a kill, which you can see from the feathers surrounding it. It’s plucking and eating something, likely a duck from the colors of the feathers.

This is also a good refuge for eagles and other raptors, so I can’t say I’m surprised, except it sure didn’t look like an eagle at the time, although at the distance they were from me, I don’t feel bad not getting the ID right at first. That’s why I take pictures and bring them home where I can magnify them and see what surprises appear…

Colusa National Wildlife Refuge

Colusa National Wildlife Refuge is about 20 minutes south of Sacramento. It’s a very important refuge to bird photographers because near the entrance they have an observation platform that overlooks a pond that is usually stuffed full of geese and ducks. The geese are a mix of Snow and Greater-White Fronted with a few Ross’s, while the ducks are typically Northern Shoveler and Pintail and Mallard (which, honestly, is the normal mix most places), although the pond is usually good for a few unusual. and interesting ones as well.

For me, interesting and unusual were some American Wigeons and a single Eurasian Wigeon, which I was clued into by another photographer as having been hanging about for a month or so. While we were able to locate it, it never came into photography range, unfortunately.

One of the goals of the trip was to practice video, since I still needed to figure out how to shoot this kind of work in video (if I could). I started out with my video camera on the small tripod and set it up to take audio/video at wide angle while I started experimenting with the bird rig set to video and on my larger tripod with a video fluid head.

In practice, I wasn’t thrilled with that head; it uses a different quick release plate than the Arca Swiss I’ve standardized on; when adding an Arca Swiss onto it it covers the battery hatch on the X-T20, and the camera interferes with the knob that secures it to the tripod. It works, but I found the setup annoyingly awkward. After a bit of time to try to figure out what I need to change to improve it, I swapped out to my preferred head, the gimbal mount. I found it worked rather well for video, although it’s still tough to get good footage at 560mm. Backing off to 400mm helped a lot.

My main video camera uses the Rode Videomicro microphone to capture audio and it actually works pretty well when shooting footage to capture ambient audio. I had sort of decided it made sense to get a second one for the main camera so I could capture audio when shooting video with it and the big lens, and as it happened the DLSR Video Shooter youtube channel reviewed a different, less expensive microphone from Movo and so I decided to try it, and it’s audio is quite good. I also added in a breakout cable that lets me record two microphones to separate channels, so I can plug in both the ambient microphone and my wireless cavalier microphone into a camera and grab both on separate channels, allowing me to get both ambient and a voiceover at the same time if I want, as long as I’m not too close to the camera while talking.

I pretty quickly got comfortable again with the gimbal with video and even got some successful flying and landing sequences, although it’s easier if I back off the telephoto a bit. This success made me relax and feel comfortable about being able to capture this footage.

And at that point I realized I’d been stressing all morning during the trip through Sacramento because I was struggling with the video side and unsure how I was going to make it work. Once I got to Colusa and experimented I started seeing what worked, and that let me relax and the rest of the day was a lot more fun.

After sitting at the observation deck for a while and watching the geese fly in and out, I did a quick run through Colusa’s auto tour. it’s also not a favorite of mine, because it’s both not photogenic and tends to put the birds into backlit positions or far away from the camera — or both, and that I’m a lot less likely to find unusual birds out there. This trip proved that true again. And I decided to head back to Sacramento for a second run to see if I had better photo opportunities. And I did.

The Peregrine was in the same tree for the afternoon run as it was that morning, and still in an impossible place to photograph. The ring-neck ducks had disappeared, but the geese were heading into afternoon and a bit on edge (with eagles and other raptors around, do you blame them? Although the bald eagles will much prefer ducks or coots as an easier catch, and the Peregrine goes for ducks and smaller birds). There was a lot of hunting noise from the hunter areas elsewhere on the refuge, took and I think that made them nervous, so I was seeing the big flocks taking off and circling before landing again multiple times.

Lessons Learned

This trips was as much about continuing to figure out the video part and how to integrate it into these trips without screwing up my still photography, and I felt this trip overall went pretty well. Setting up the camera with the big lens for video with the addition of the microphone was a surprising but useful change since I din’t have to worry about reconfiguring gear to shoot video out of the telephoto; bringing out the gimbal to support the big lens also wasn’t my plan but turned out to be the right option. That will probably be my go-to tripod option although I intend to continue trying to figure out the fluid head and work around the issues I found.

Shooting telephoto out of the car is still a problem but I made progress. I may also experiment with a bean pillow for supporting the lens out the window, but I think I can reconfigure the window mount to solve the problems I had. I’ll try that then take it out to Coyote Valley to test.

I also realized I’d gotten into a bad habit I didn’t realize until I was standing on the observation deck: my Fuji X-T2 birding setup is a lot lighter than my old Canon gear was and is easily hand-holdable, but I’d gotten into hand holding even when I could (and should) have hooked up to the tripod for extra stability. I have to get back into the habit of using the tripod when I can, because it improves the sharpness and gives me even more access to poor light conditions without resorting to higher ISO and camera noise. Now that I’m aware of that, I’ll have to be more thoughtful about pulling out the tripod and not just dropping into run and gun mode.

Overall, it was almost a 14 hour trip, of which about half the time was spent driving and the other half on the refuges watching and shooting. Made for a long day, but a very productive one and well worth doing.

Next up on the trips will depend on how busy I get at the new job, but I expect Laurie and I will head out, probably to Isenberg Crane Refuge and the Lodi area between Christmas and New Year, and then I’ve got the February trip to Merced I’m leading, and I’ll need to go out the week before to scout.

Colusa National Wildlife Refuge

Colusa National Wildlife Refuge

Colusa National Wildlife Refuge

Colusa National Wildlife Refuge

Snow Geese in Flight, Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge