The Cranes Return, Evening. San Joaquin Valley, California. January 21, 2013. © Copyright 2013 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.
The sandhill cranes return to the marshes of the San Joaquin Valley at dusk on a mid-winter evening.
For reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, the evening return of the sandhill cranes is one of the magical things among a host of magical things about central California’s winter migratory bird population. I think I was primed to regard these birds this way by reading about them many years ago, though I never quite new what sandhill cranes actually were and I presumed that they were only found in far-off places. Then when I first began to photograph birds seriously – which was only a few years ago – one of my first encounters with the winter bird popular involved finding sandhill cranes in fields south of Sacramento. Then, perhaps last winter, there was an evening at a wildlife refuge in the Central Valley when I was photographing geese with a small group of friends. There had been many, many Ross’s geese around that evening and as dusk approached the goose photography gradually came to an end as the geese departed. After the intense focus of shooting those birds, once they were gone we sort of looked up and realized that the sun was gone and that the world was quieting down. It seemed like the show was over. And then I heard a sound from over the trees to the southeast, a sound I now immediately recognize as the distinctive call of the cranes, and within moments huge flocks of these birds began to coast overhead and look for landing spots.
That is now how I expect to see them – at some point during the dusk period when most everything else has started to quiet down, the cranes appear. Their sound is a distinct contrast with the wild and raucous cackling of the geese, an altogether calmer and quieter call. And their mode of flight is also different. While the geese often launch loudly into the sky in huge, flapping clouds, the cranes coast in slowly and rather quietly, often in long lines, and their motion is slower and smoother. On this evening, at a point when there was barely enough light left to make photographs, they appeared to my left and crossed in front of me with the western dusk sky as a backdrop.
G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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