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Photographing Birds with My Daughter at Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually

Peter Griffin, star of “Family Guy” and avid bird lover, once asked, “Do you or do you not know about the bird? Cause everybody has heard that the bird, bird, bird is the word.”

According to a 2016 study performed by the Department of the Interior, Bird is most definitely the word with 45.1 million active birdwatchers contributing just shy of $76 billion to the economy. Comparatively, hunting and fishing combined brought $72 billion to the economy. Birding is one of the most popular hobbies in America and even has fantasy birding competitions like football.

I’ve never been particularly into birding, but a handful of recent events have helped to increase my interest in birding. First, my three-year-old daughter adores birds. She’s also the only one of my children that has taken an active interest in photography. She carries my tripod around, loves to take photos around the house. Finally, I decided to stop at the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually Wildlife Refuge and was amazed at the sheer number of birders out watching and photographing various birds.

The Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge is home to approximately 200 different species of birds including swans, geese, ducks, quail, loons, grebes, cormorants, pelicans, herons, vultures, osprey, hawks, kites, harries, rails, coots, plovers, stilts, snipes, sandpipers, phalaropes, and on the list goes. Without the list, I may never have learned of the existence of phalaropes.  

Over 20 species of mammals, including seals, otters, bats, and deer as well as six different reptile and amphibian species, call the refuge home as well.

Human development and encroachment destroyed an estimated 85 percent of Puget Sound’s estuary habitats. The refuge was once part of the percent of damaged habitat, but after removing five miles of a dike, 732 acres of the estuary was able to be restored.

 

The refuge has a gift shop and a small museum that highlights the history, biology, and geology of the region. It costs three dollars to park. Remember to bring cash, because that’s all they take. If you’re like me and don’t usually carry cash, they won’t get overly angry. The gift shop takes credit cards, so maybe make a purchase to help.

While my son was at a friend’s house and my youngest daughter was napping, Lennon, my aspiring photographer, was moving my Nikon D3200 and the tripod from room to room, taking photos of everything. She shot nearly 200 photos in thirty minutes—many of them of her stuffed collection of owls spread around the house.

My kids are rarely into the things I think are cool, so when given the opportunity to share one of my hobbies with Lennon, I jumped at the opportunity. We jumped in the car and headed to the Nisqually Wildlife refuge.

It’s February in Washington, which means cold and rain, but we had about an hour clear to explore.

This place is made for birders. Drones, jogging, campfires are all forbidden. Even on a slow day, there are dozens of people bird watching, and they are usually pretty keen on silence. When we first discovered it, we brought all three of our hyperactive children and got a few glares. Lennon and visiting it alone was perfect. She proudly carried the tripod to the delight of people passing us.

 

We didn’t get very far down the trail before we rain into a Great Blue Heron. I’m not very knowledgeable about birds in general. I can identify the general favorites amongst people like bald eagles and hummingbirds, but I’m oblivious to birds overall, and I have next to zero knowledge of bird calls.

I went to google for help identifying the bird that was about as tall as my daughter. I found some interesting facts. The Great Blue Heron’s neck is long and specially designed to throw its head forward using its beak like a spear to skewer fish, small rodents, and amphibians. Fully grown, they are about 38-54 inches tall with up to a six-foot wingspan. The father picks the nesting location; usually, 20 – 60 feet high, and the mother builds the nest. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs, which take about a month to hatch. Their young usually begin flying at about two months old. They also do not mate for life. They change partners each season.

The Iroquois tribe considered seeing a Great Blue Heron as a good luck omen.

I set up the tripod. I didn’t extend the legs so that it would be at eye level for her. I put on a 70-300mm lens. I set the camera on automatic and coached her through using the autofocus. 

“First, you do a soft touch, and when you see everything through the hole the best, then do a hard push,” I explained to her.

In a few minutes, she had it down. 

My 70-300 is a bit wonky at longer distances, and I wound up trading it out with an 18-75mm Nikkor kit lens, we slowly got closer to the Great Blue heron, and Lennon was able to get some great shots.

We turned around, and there was a handful of Canada Geese. (it’s a mental struggle to type Canada Geese, it is correct though.)  

We walked a bit further, and she took some photos of some trees and a birdhouse and then the rain began. We ran back to the car and ended our trip.

The Nisqually Wildlife Refuge has a little free pamphlet that is their Wildlife Checklist, which lists the hundreds of different types of animals and the times of year you can expect to see them. Maybe Lennon and I will make this more of a regular occurrence. We can start a birding fantasy team and start working our way down the wildlife checklist. I just need to invest in a better and more functional long-distance lens. I mean, it’s really for my daughter’s happiness, after all. How could my wife possibly say no?

A little cropping and lightroom and she's just as good as I am!

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Written by Corey Dembeck

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