Emily Renzel Wetlands is part of the larger Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve. The Emily Renzel section is located on the western side of the preserve, right next to US 101. It consists of reclaimed wetlands and two small ponds. Each pond is encircled by a hard-packed trails. A combination of reeds and brush separate the trails from the water, but there are gaps making it possible to get to the water’s edge.
The ponds are a great place to photograph ducks and other water birds. Many of the birds are found in either pond, but some show a preference for one pond or the other. The northern pond, being wider, provides better photographic opportunities. It can be hard to get a nice blurred out background on the southern pond.
The ponds get stellar evening light. In the summer, the sun sets at the expected time, while the mountains cut sunset short by 10-15 minutes in the winter. The levee and brush encircling the ponds block the sunset on the water ends 20-30 minutes earlier than expected.
Note that the ponds are fed by the Palo Alto water treatment plant. Tertiary-treated water is released into the ponds from the plant. This same water is used for irrigation throughout Palo Alto and Mountain View. This city factsheet provides details on exposure to chemicals in the recycled water.
The Common Gallinule is fairly rare in the Bay Area. Emily Renzel is one of the best places to photograph it. (While rare in the Bay Area, moorhens are very common birds in other parts of the world).
I’ve found it very challenging to get good photos of these birds. To start with, they tend to keep to the reeds. They do move around semi-regularly and will cross open water to do so. This means they’re pretty much always in motion when isolated from the background.
The second issue is that they’re just somewhat odd-looking birds. Most of their poses honestly look somewhat awkward. They’ve got a bold but eccentric color palette.
This all adds up to a fun challenge. When I get a good photo of a Common Gallinule, I’m especially pleased. It takes a combination of patience, good luck, and skillful post-processing to show them at their best.
American White Pelican
In season, American White Pelicans can be found all around the San Francisco Bay. At sunset, the vegetation along the edges of the Renzel Ponds create an especially moody contrast with with these bright birds.