Bird Photography in Northern California / by Kevin Westerlund

After a very rewarding trip to New Mexico to photograph birds in early December of last year, I believed that nothing could match the bird experience of a winter visit to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. With sandhill cranes and snow geese congregating there by the tens of thousands for the winter months, and with the extraordinary spectacle of mass fly-outs of thousands of geese, a trip to Bosque del Apache is seldom anything short of awe-inspiring. But two brief trips to the Sacramento and Colusa National Wildlife Refuges in January and February showed me that the Bosque del Apache experience, or at least something very close to it, is available much closer to home. Although the California refuges lacked the sandhill cranes that make Bosque del Apache such a special place to visit, they proved to be the Bosque’s equal in the snow goose department.

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Beyond that, the two California refuges provided a diversity of birds that Bosque del Apache lacks. Most notably, I had close access to bald eagles, and on several occasions I was able to watch the feeding behavior of great egrets. Additionally, I frequently saw and photographed hawks, golden eagles, great blue herons, ring-necked pheasants, greater white-fronted geese, red-winged blackbirds, ibises, and meadowlarks.

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In previous trips to the Sacramento Refuge, I’ve only spent a few hours exploring the area. This time, however, I was able to spend two-and-a-half days there. This enabled me to observe the birds’ behavior and ultimately to position myself to get better photographs of them. A visit to Bosque del Apache is always a magical experience, largely because New Mexico is a magical place. But it was gratifying to know that such a wonderful bird photography opportunity is available to me at a place that I can drive to in two hours, instead of two days.