During our camping trip to the west desert last week we decided to pay a visit to Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge has to be one of the most remote in the National Wildlife Refuge system but that fact is a major part of what appeals to me about the place. Once you leave the pavement, access from the east means 63 miles of rough dirt/gravel roads just to get there. And in those 126 miles (out and back) the only other vehicles I encountered on the road were a county maintenance crew grading the road, a single ATV and a sheep herder’s pickup pulling a trailer.
I’ve visited the refuge many times over the years and enjoyed every trip. It truly is a jewel in the desert.
But this time my timing wasn’t good for birds – we were too early. Because of our late spring very few migrants had arrived and those that were there were mostly unapproachable in such a wild and remote place. So I left Fish Springs without any bird photos of note.
This shot demonstrates the remoteness of the access road to Fish Springs (the road follows the old Pony Express Trail and locals call traveling this road “Riding the Pony”). About the only living things we encountered in those many miles were these sheep and their sheep herders with attendant dogs and horses.
But it was along this road that I was able to get my only decent bird shot of the trip and it happened on the way to the refuge (this shot was taken late-morning on the way back).
Despite the roughness of the road in spots, for most of the trip I was able to make pretty good time - often traveling at about 45 – 50 mph. Suddenly we spotted this female American Kestrel perched in the middle of the road in front of us. This was the gutsiest kestrel I’ve ever encountered. As I got closer she stood her ground and I had to hit the brakes hard enough that I skidded on the gravel in the road. When I finally stopped, she was still on the road looking at us defiantly. She was so close that I could barely see her over the hood of my pickup and through all the dust thrown up by my skidding stop.
As I attempted to maneuver my pickup to photograph her on the road she flew off and landed on this piece of rebar sticking up out of an old and decrepit Pony Express trail marker but she was too far away and the light angle wasn’t the best for decent photos.
1/5000, f/5.6, ISO 640, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc, natural light, not baited, set up or called in
But then she flew across the road and landed on the ground in a position that gave me a better light angle and I was able to get off three very quick shots of her before she flew off. She didn’t even give me time to adjust my settings which accounts for the high shutter speed and ISO in my techs.
I was surprised to find this kestrel where I did. There were no elevated perches (trees, telephone poles, cliffs or anything else) for many miles from this spot. I was also impressed by her pluckiness in refusing to relinquish the road to my speeding pickup as it barreled toward her kicking up immense clouds of dust. Recently my friend (and raptor authority) Mike Shaw referred to the American Kestrel as “Little Big Man” because of the well-known fearlessness and aggressiveness of this diminutive falcon. Perhaps in this case “Little Big Woman” would be more appropriate…
Sometimes a single bird saves the day for the bird photographer. That was exactly the case last Wednesday.