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May 2010: Black-necked Stilt

From the Photographer

Rick McEwan 

Dawn trips by kayak sometimes turn into all day paddles, the location and moment too wonderful to go ashore. I have often kayaked The Nature Conservancy's Williamson River Delta Preserve on Oregon's Upper Klamath Lake, always to be awestruck.

One particular morning outing started with a mirrored surface across the wetland. The only sound was the swooshing of the kayak, slicing through the sky's image reflected around me.

I remembered a year ago driving through a cloud of dust in this very location. The preserve used to be land. Now, as the morning progressed, there were squawks of ducks, the pattering of coots' wings over the water, and the trumpeting of geese and sandhill cranes overhead. I observed egrets perched in treetops, pelicans foraging about in open water and resting on newly formed islands, and black-necked stilts wading in the shallows.

As the day progressed and my arms tired, I let the kayak drift into a small cluster of willows and nearly got a mouthful of gnats. Hidden in this island of greenery and cloud of gnats, I followed, with my telephoto lens, the antics of terns swooping and diving for small fish, when a black-necked stilt flew past on a determined path to shallow water.

Black-necked stilts (Himantopus mexicanus), found on coastlines and wetlands, emit incessant yapping sounds, dive at predators, and feign mortal injuries. Stilts feed on aquatic invertebrates and fish while wading through shallows.

The arrival of black-necked stilts is a compelling testimony to the rebirth of these wetlands and success of the project.

Here at the Williamson River Delta in the 1940s, 22 miles of levees were built around the inland delta, converting it to agricultural lands. This Klamath Basin delta, once a haven for fish and wildlife, was gone, and the population of stilts and other wetland wildlife vanished.

The Williamson River Delta Preserve is one of the most challenging and pioneering wetland restoration projects in the West. The innovative work of removing levees — with machinery and explosives — flooded over 5,000 acres, restoring historic wetlands. Advancing the recovery of two endangered fish species, the Lost River sucker and shortnose sucker, this ambitious venture also benefits many other wildlife species and water quality.

Today, the area is a unique and special place, where I have photographed for The Conservancy many times over the past few years. I have witnessed the rebirth of this wetland, beginning with heavy equipment grading the land for varying water depths to match historic models, the breaching of the levees, and the present repopulating of the marsh. At first, I photographed on foot or driving throughout the preserve. Now, the delta is flooded and I have returned time and time again to photograph those same locations by kayak. I have observed the rise of emergent vegetation, watched the scientists count young larval fish and witnessed the return of water birds.

This has been an extraordinary and exquisite experience of nature, one which I will continue to document for many more years.

Rick McEwan is a volunteer professional photographer for The Nature Conservancy who captures images of conservation across Oregon and beyond. For more of his work, go to

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