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Side by Side

When two similarly experienced photographers accompany one another on the same shoot, to the same locations, at the same moments and with exactly the same equipment. You might expect sameness.

There is similarity between these side-by-side images, because Philip Reedy and I convoyed north Friday morning to photograph fall color and migratory birds at the same locations at the same time. We each carried the same bodies and lenses: Nikon D850 cameras with Nikkor 200-500mm, f. 5.6 lenses. The similarity ended there.

Driving separately, out of shared pandemic precaution, we arrived soon after dawn at Gray Lodge Wildlife Area. Phil voiced what I’d been thinking, “There were several times when we were driving through Live Oak that I wanted to stop, because the light was so good.”

He was right, we should have stopped. We’d just passed huge blocks of walnut trees, heavy with golden leaves, and I’d similarly wanted to pull over. Phil noted an orchard that had been carpeted with gold.

Lesson learned: When the light is perfect, stop and take pictures right then. Great light is what’s important, not what you plan to be the subject.

Upon arriving at Gray Lodge, thousands of birds lifted off in one massive, morning-light, mass ascension as they sought rice fields elsewhere. We’d missed it by a moment.

Filled with regret not stopping first in Live Oak, we circled Gray Lodge realizing the birds that remained weren’t leaving, a good scene for birders but not for us. So we headed back beside a long line of trees fronting Rutherford Rd, then north 20 miles to our second objective, Agua Frias Rd. Robert Kermen had drawn a map indicating where he’d seen Sandhill Cranes foraging. They chose to be elsewhere that day, but where?

Just when we’d struck out, we made new luck, stopping at a backlit Walnut Orchard. Phil saw it as filled with golden light; I saw it as darkly shaded with fluorescent- banded trunks.

“We’ve gone a good ways north,” Phil observed, “Almost to Chico.” I responded, “There’s a good place near here, juse south of Chico. It’s an archway of trees overhanging Midway Rd.” And, we were off.

I told the story. Phil showed the beauty.

Encouraged, we decided to head back toward Live Oak. Maybe those walnut orchards we’d seen would still be good. The experience in the orchard on Agua Frias Rd. taught us light can be soft, not harsh, beneath the canopy.

I found a time-worn orchard shed . Phil found an orchard layered with leaves.

It was after noon, but there was still one more place to visit on the return home, the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge near I-5. We’d visited it last year at the same time, but were there soon after daybreak, not this late. I set the Nav which cut us cross-country along backroads around the Sutter Buttes toward Colusa. Then on E. Butte Rd. it happened. I saw Sandhill Crane in a rice field.

Sandhill Cranes, Sutter Buttes (11/20/20) John Poimiroo

They were wary. A car or truck passing on E. Butte Rd. didn’t bother them, but stop and they moved away. This image was taken at 500mm, a hundred yards from the cranes and standing behind my SUV. Any closer and they’d walk elsewhere.

Phil shot using his car as a blind, but was hoping for more action. We got it soon after when we stopped a few rice paddies south. There, the geese we’d seen ascending that morning from Gray Lodge were spread out across the paddy. No sooner had we stopped and set up, than …

Mass Ascension, Snow geese, Sutter Buttes (11/20/20) John Poimiroo
Mass Ascension, Snow geese, Sutter Buttes (11/20/20) Philip Reedy

We eventually got to the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, where photographers said there hadn’t been much action. So, we joined them in shooting pictures of a few ducks on logs by the birder’s platform. A brrr of motor drives would whine occasionally when a duck flew in to land. We were told the Snow Geese hadn’t shown up. They were elsewhere.

Note: Following our return, Phil was disappointed in the sharpness of his photos. He thought it was the lens, but when he discovered a UV filter on the lens (which he hadn’t noticed previously), took it off and took side-by-side comparison shots, the reason for blurriness was evident.

Lesson learned: If you use protective filters on your long lenses, remove them before taking photographs!

  • Walnut Orchards, Gridley, Live Oak (95′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
  • Sacramento Valley National Wildlife Refuges (49′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!

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