The last few months have been chaotic, to put it mildly, with multiple trips to SoCal to be with Susan during her illness and finally for her services — all while trying to keep work on track as best I can, and the rest of life and what it tosses at you, such as our failed water heater.

I’m happy to be beyond most of that and with life starting to settle down again, starting to be able to think about more normal things like photography again. Of course, with the massive fires here in California and the smoke covering much of the state, going outside is hazardous, so I’ve been limiting how much time I spend outside as well. Rains are expected (finally!) later this week, and while it’s unclear how far south the front will come, it’ll help both fighting the fires and the overall air quality in the region.

Black Friday is a day Laurie and I traditionally head out to Merced NWR to get as far away from the marketing and idiot drivers as possible, and we’ll do that again, weather permitting, or maybe even if the weather is pretty crappy, because why not?

While I haven’t been able to plan much photography recently, I have snuck some in along the edges where I could. While in SoCal I was able to carve out some time here and there to go and explore a few areas like the San Joaquin Marsh Reserve in Irvine. I also tried to visit Bolsa Chica but the footbridge is under construction so access is limited right now.

I also made a few stops at the refuges along the path, as much for some battery-recharging time out in the wild alone, which I find really helps me unwind and get my head straight.

Some of these stops I hauled out the camera and experimented with the Fuji X-T3, sometimes there wasn’t a lot going on photographically and I just enjoyed the views. I did create some photographs I like, though, and so I can show them off here and talk about them a little bit.

San Joaquin Marsh Reserve (October 10, 2018)

It’d been a few years since I’d birded here, for no reason I can explain. San Joaquin Marsh is an area along the Santa Ana River in Irving that’s been converted into a bird reserve from a set of retired settling ponds from a sewage treatment plants. It’s a rather innovative re-use and they’ve been able to create both deeper ponds for ducks and water birds and shallow wading areas for shorebirds, and with some nice mature trees, this is a rather nice wildlife area in the middle of a fairly built up area of Orange County. According to eBird, it’s one of the top three birding areas in the county along with Bolsa Chica and Huntington Central Park.

Photos: San Joaquin Marsh Reserve (October 10, 2018)

Notably I was able to see and photograph a couple of unusual birds there, both a Cassin’s Kingbird (the most common kingbird for the county) and a Tropical Kingbird, which is quite unusual but we’ve seen larger than normal numbers of them around the state.

Cassin’s Kingbird, San Joaquin Reserve, Irvine, California

Tropical Kingbird, San Joaquin Reserve, Irvine, California

Coyote Valley (October 26, 2018)

Coyote Valley is an open area along 101 south of San Jose in the area between San Jose and Morgan Hill. It’s one of the last great open spaces and is a fantastic birding area, especially in winter when the raptor population is wonderful. A few years ago Coyote Valley OSP was opened, protecting a chunk of it of it from development forever, but it’s seems like it’s always under some development threat or another that needs to be watched or fought.

I needed to get out of the house for a bit, so I grabbed lunch and headed down there rather than eat at my desk, and took along the camera for a quick outing.

Photos: Coyote Valley (October 26, 2018)

I made two stops here, the first on Laguna West, a small road that travels from Santa Teresa to the base of the hills between agricultural properties. This is rather legendary for it’s birding possibilities here in the County, although as the fields have shifted to alfalfa it’s not quite as busy as it used to be, but it’s still worth a stop. It’s also the place where in the 1980’s Steve Jobs landed in a helicopter to announce the location of Apple’s new headquarters — a development that never happened because he was fired from Apple and the project was dropped as Apple fell apart and tried to die. It was a project that helped people realize this was an area that needed protection, though, and so it’s one reason these areas are still open and not endless waves of tract houses and warehouses.

The second stop was Coyote OSP, which is at Palm and Santa Teresa, a little south of Laguna. I did an outing here for Santa Clara Valley Audubon last spring and was scheduled to do one this month we had to cancel due to my travels, but I’m hoping to reschedule it in December, and do it again for next year’s birdathon.

Time was short and birding wasn’t fantastic, but this is the most reliable place for one of the county’s specialties, the Yellow-Billed Magpie, and the hawks didn’t disappoint and they made great practice for aiming and focus with the new Fuji

White-tailed Kite, Coyote Valley OSP, Santa Clara County, California

Yellow-billed Magpie, Coyote Valley OSP, Santa Clara County, California

San Joaquin Marsh Reserve (November 7, 2018)

I made another stop to San Joaquin Marsh in November, to get in a walk and see what was happening. It was quieter, but one pond has a collection of Western Grebes (and one or two Clark’s) and they make an interesting experiment in seeing how well a camera handles extreme dynamic ranges.

Photos: San Joaquin Marsh Reserve (7, 2018)

Some of the Grebes were starting to show courting behavior, including this pair that were clearly showing interest in each other. And then I had this Great Blue Heron fly in without seeing my until it landed maybe 15′ away, after which it spent a lot of time watching me to see if I was a threat while I tried hard to not seem threatening. Ultimately it bent down to fish and I used that as an excuse to slowly move away to another bench, so it could relax and stop worrying about me.

Great Blue Heron, San Joaquin Reserve, Irvine, California

Western Grebe, San Joaquin Reserve, Irvine, California. These two are in the early stages of the “hey, you’re kinda cute” interactions.

Merced Refuges (November 10, 2018)

And after my last trip to SoCal for a bit, I got up well before dawn and drove north, allowing me the chance to spend a couple of hours at Merced NWR and San Luis NWR on my way home to unwind.

Photos: Merced Refuges (November 10, 2018)

At Merced, the white geese (snow and ross’s) are starting to appear but weren’t close enough for photography. The Cranes were around, but again, not close enough to make photography useful. I was able to find a nice Peregrine Falcon, though, a nice treat for this location. I also found a few Ring-Necked ducks, unusual here.

Shifting over to San Luis NWR I only had time for the waterfowl tour route, and to my surprise, the main ponds at the far end of the refuge — where the two-directional road is — are still bone dry with heavy equipment in them. This is the primary place on the refuge for ducks and tundra swans, so it should be flooded by now, but they seem to be working on some problem, and that means those birds have moved elsewhere — this might be why the ring-necked ducks are in Merced, for instance, since I more commonly seem them here.

Still, I found some nice birds here, including many killdeer, and one was nice enough to take a long and enjoyable bath within clear view, leading to some rather nice images of this common but fun species. And on the way out, a family of California Quail was on the roadway and rather than immediately bolt for the underbrush, gave me a chance to get some nice images of them….

Peregrine Falcon, Merced National Wildlife Refuge, California

Killdeer Bathing, San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, California

California Quail, San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, California

I’m not sure I’d consider any of these images “to die for” shots, but I’ll tell you what: it’s better doing good photography than no photography, and something a lot of photographers forget: we get so tied up in “great light” sometimes that we give up without trying, when we should be getting out and seeing what images we can make when we can shoot, rather than finding excuses to not haul out the camera at all…