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Special coverage: Sonoma County Regional Parks

Tom Reynolds strolled down the Fisherman’s Trail, through copses of willows and bay laurels and thickets of Himalayan blackberry and wild grape on the western shore of Spring Lake in Santa Rosa. A camera with a telephoto lens was around his neck. At a bench by the water’s edge, he sat down and looked across the water. He watched and waited.

“I like the lazy man’s approach to wildlife viewing,” he said softly. “I just try to fade into the landscape. That’s when you start seeing things.”

It was a sound strategy. A belted kingfisher yammered nearby, and shortly after that a merlin soared across the lake, landing in a nearby snag. Across the water, a flock of Canada geese sunned and preened on a sandbar. The big birds began honking, craning their necks and flapping their wings.

“Looks like something has them agitated,” Reynolds mused. Three sinuous, dark forms burst from a clump of cattails and tule and scampered across the sandbar before diving back into the brush.

“Mink,” he said.

The three elegant little predators eluded Reynolds’ camera, and that was somewhat unusual for him. Over the past several years, he has built an impressive body of work around Sonoma County wildlife, mostly at our regional parks.

Many of his images are stunning, capturing seldom-witnessed scenes: a family of river otters devouring a lunker largemouth bass, a pileated woodpecker pecking at wild grapes, a bald eagle soaring near Jenner with a lamprey clutched in its talons, and a close-up of a bobcat perched on a mossy rock at the southwest corner of Spring Lake, its fur glinting in the sun.

Reynolds has become an unofficial photographer and ambassador for Regional Parks, donating his images for county use on social media, websites and publications, conducting regular birding trips on park properties and making presentations to local schools on wildlife and photography.

“He spends most days in one park or another,” said Meda Freeman, spokeswoman for the department. “He’s so immersed in his work, and his product is so tangible and beautiful. He’s so committed to his mission that he won’t even accept a free parking pass from us. We consider ourselves pretty lucky to have his support.”

Reynolds, now in his 70s, came to wildlife photography late in life. For most of his career, he worked as a fleet manager for PepsiCo. After taking an early retirement from the company, he moved to Santa Rosa and spent 10 years as a heavy equipment operator for the county.

“But I always had the Kodak gene,” he said. “I just like being outside. I go up to the national bird refuges in the Sacramento Valley once in a while, but mostly I just visit the regional parks. They’re incredible properties, and you can spend a lifetime exploring them.”

Reynolds is a staunch advocate for all the parks, but some are particularly good for wildlife viewing. Among his seasonal favorites:

Autumn

The primary migratory season for birds, and songbirds, raptors, shorebirds and waterfowl all make use of the regional parks during this period. Doran Beach is a prime spot for birds, and bobcats are also seen there with some regularity. The Wohler Bridge Fishing Access on the Russian River is a good place to see migratory warblers and ospreys.

Special coverage: Sonoma County Regional Parks

Winter

The shorebird and waterfowl migrations reach their peak in early winter, so all the coastal parks are good candidates. Migratory raptors also concentrate along the coast at this time.

Spring

A superb season for wildlife viewing. Ragle Ranch Regional Park is a good place to see a variety of migrating songbirds, while the Laguna de Santa Rosa Trail also offers viewing opportunities for raptors, including white-tailed kites, short-eared owls, great horned owls, Cooper’s hawks and the occasional bald eagle.

Summer

Often slower for wildlife viewing, but the coast parks usually have good populations of resident birds, including black oystercatchers, ospreys and brown pelicans. Marine mammals, including California sea lions, harbor seals and gray whales, are commonly seen.

Year-round destination

Spring Lake Regional Park deserves a special mention, says Reynolds. Riparian forest and oak uplands support large nesting songbird populations, including seldom-seen species such as Bullock’s oriole and western tanager. Raptors and waterfowl are abundant year-round, as are river otter, bobcat, gray fox, black-tailed deer, coyote, beaver, muskrat, mink and the occasional cougar.

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