A Day in the Field at Williamson River Delta Preserve

by Rick McEwan

I learned my craft, as a photographer, in the majestic mountains of California’s Sierra Nevada. I honed my art on the preserves of The Nature Conservancy.

In photographing for the Conservancy, I have learned, protecting biodiversity does not usually mean I will be photographing dramatic and austere landscapes. It is about photographing locations of subtle beauty.

Creatively, I have learned it is all about looking deeply with no preconceived ideas and expectations. Nature’s beauty is everywhere, and I have learned never to let first impressions convince me otherwise. Simply look, and nature’s wonder can be experienced all around us.

Mud Puddles to Clear Inspiration

Slowly slogging through mud threatening to suck the wading boots from my feet, I watched as each carefully placed step vanished. An inch of water covered the murky bottom, which swallowed my legs to the calves. My destination still twenty or more steps away.

I stayed focused, both on my camera and on extracting one foot at a time, which I moved forward to be consumed again by the odorous ooze. After several more steps, I was able to see the tops of my boots as they splashed lazily through the water.

As my tripod touched down on semi dry ground, I reached my destination.  A small island of willows, cottonwoods, and a ghost of a tree.

My body was suddenly jolted as I slid across the narrow piece of ground. Under the dry appearance lay hidden a layer of mud as slick as ice. I stared up at my camera, arms outstretched, holding the attached tripod across my chest, which was back-dropped by blue sky. Even for someone who has changed lenses over water hundreds of times, I found all the splattered mud a bit disconcerting as I starred up at my equipment.

A chorus of strange squeaks and splashes accompanied my arrival. The local inhabitants departed as quickly as I had gracefully arrived.

As I regained my composure, followed by a standing position, I attempted to clean up. The notion of which quickly seemed hopeless. A few additional squeaks and splashes, and I decided locating and photographing the makers of these queer noises more interesting than the mud clinging to my backside. 

After about an hour of carefully searching my surroundings, I managed to capture a portrait of a shy frog. A little iridescent green creature, who dared to show its big eyes bulging above the water’s surface. By then I was completely captivated with the colors and textures of the emergent vegetation. I continued photographing the rebirth of this section of wetlands, until the lighting was but an indigo blue.

After photographing one last inky blue image, I heard the whooshing of powerful wings approaching through the gathering darkness. The pterosaurs form appeared above the water in front of me. Rising, it circled around, approaching to within fifty feet before abruptly veering off and acknowledging my presence with a series of raspy, cackling squawks.

The winged creature circled back continuing to squawk, and I realized, I was standing under its destination. 

Carefully and as quickly as possible, I returned across the blackened marsh, which again made a determined effort to remove my boots. Upon reaching dry ground, the squawking had ceased. I turned to see the faint form of the great blue heron settling on the white outstretched branches of its old perch.

For years, Rick McEwan has been photographing for The Nature Conservancy in Oregon, traveling thousands of miles to capture the rich biodiversity found at 17 Oregon preserves, as well as many additional Conservancy projects.

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