Category Archives: Photographs: Central California

Goose-Filled Sky, Dusk

Goose-Filled Sky, Dusk
Thousands of Ross’s geese fill the dusk sky above California’s San Joaquin Valley

Goose-Filled Sky, Dusk. San Joaquin Valley, California. February 5, 2016. © Copyright 2016 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Thousands of Ross’s geese fill the dusk sky above California’s San Joaquin Valley

The light and the photographic subjects pass through a series of stages at the end of the day in these wetlands areas. The nondescript late afternoon light takes on a warmer tone as the sun drops toward the horizon and shadows lengthen, and often clouds in the distant west may momentarily mute the light. There is still plenty of light for traditional bird photography, as the direct sunlight has not yet disappeared. Before long comes the last bit of direct sun, golden in color on the bodies of white geese, and then it is twilight.

At this transitional moment all sort of light magic can happen. As flocks of birds wheel around in the night sky they take on different colors — the gold of reflected sunset, the blue of the eastern sky that is transitioning towards night, and sometimes they simply are black against the sky. And the sky shifts colors, too. Sometimes the effect is wild and gaudy, but more often it is subtle, with tones of pink and blue and purple and more. By the time I made this photograph the light was becoming quite dim, and it was dark enough that I could no longer maintain a shutter speed that would stop the motion of the birds. So I no longer tried! I use a longer shutter speed and pan, watching for the flocks to compose themselves in interesting ways, always in constant motion, and against the colors of the evening sky.


G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. His book, “California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra” is available from Heyday Books and Amazon.
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In Flight, Dusk

In Flight, Dusk
Ross’s geese in flight above San Joaquin Valley wetlands in dusk light

In Flight, Dusk. San Joaquin Valley, California. February 5, 2016. © Copyright 2016 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Ross’s geese in flight above San Joaquin Valley wetlands in dusk light

This was a beautiful mid-winter day in the San Joaquin Valley. It began with a two-hour pre-dawn drive from home, starting earlier than a month ago now that the days are beginning to lengthen again. I drove in clear weather and it remained so as the sky began to brighten as I entered the valley, but as I got closer to my destination I was pleased to encounter for — thin at first but within minutes so think that I had to slow and turn on fog lights. I arrived at my destination a half hour before sunrise, and began photographing, working all morning before finally taking a break for lunch.

My friends Claudia and Michael had dropped a hint in an email that they might be out that way later in the day, and I was pleased to find them there when I came back from my break. We greeted one another, took a quick trip around the area to scout the birds for evening photography, and then ended right back were we started. Big groups of sandhill cranes and geese (mostly Ross’s but with a few other interlopers mixed in) were active in newly turned fields nearby, so we found a good vantage point and watched as the evening light came on. Eventually the light became so dim that it was no longer really possible to make sharp stop-motion photographs of birds in flight. This is, in a way, one of my favorite times of day, when I switch over from a more typical kind of bird photography and begin to go with the darkness, using slow shutter speeds and panning along with the motion of flocks, and making photographs that work with the motion blur of low light and slower shutter speeds.


G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. His book, “California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra” is available from Heyday Books and Amazon.
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Big Creek Bridge, Big Sur Coast

Big Creek Bridge, Big Sur Coast
Evening light on the Big Sur Coast and the Big Creek Bridge

Big Creek Bridge, Big Sur Coast. Pacific Coast, California. January 24, 2016. © Copyright 2016 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Evening light on the Big Sur Coast and the Big Creek Bridge

I have to admit that when it comes to available photograph subjects… I am spoiled. I knew I was going to go make photographs today, but when I awoke well before dawn I had not decided for sure where I would go. I considered going north across the Golden Gate to Point Reyes National Seashore, but it sounded like a weak weather system was going to pass through that area late in the day. I thought about heading to the Central Valley where my favorite winter subject, migratory birds, can be found — but I generally prefer to go there when I think there will be at least some fog. So I headed south, beginning my morning with a few hours at the Point Lobos State Reserve and then heading further south down the Big Sur coastline.

When I arrived at Point Lobos the light was interesting and the surf was still huge. Over the next few hours the surf diminished a bit and a thin overcast drifted in overhead and began to thicken. I figured that I might get somewhat clearer light a bit further south, so off I went on the Pacific Coast Highway. On the way south I stopped at this spot and considered it as a possible subject for the sunset hour, and then I continued on down the coast. Later I checked the time, estimated I had enough to make it back to this spot before sunset, and headed back up the road, arriving here perhaps ten minutes before the good light arrived. The bridge, dwarfed by the immense landscape of coastal mountains and ocean, spans the outlet of Big Creek.


G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. His book, “California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra” is available from Heyday Books and Amazon.
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Winter Geese, Morning

Winter Geese, Morning
Thousands of migratory geese take to the air at dawn above San Joaquin Valley wetlands

Winter Geese, Morning. San Joaquin Valley, California. January 1, 2016. © Copyright 2016 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Thousands of migratory geese take to the air at dawn above San Joaquin Valley wetlands

Before dawn on New Year’s Day, when a group of friends, artists, and photographers arrived for our annual celebration of the literal dawn of a new year, this wildlife refuge area, a favorite of ours, was oddly quiet. More typically we exit our vehicles to the raucous sound of thousands of birds — geese, cranes, and more. But we heard almost no birds in the morning twilight. We split up and went off to find out where the birds were and several of us eventually ended up outside the refuge along the passing roadway, where there are some large ponds. At least there were some geese here.

We never know what we’ll find. It might be the most astonishing day of tens or thousands of birds in the air, in the fields, on the water, in and among trees. Or it might be quiet. Either will work — when the birds are more scarce we tend to turn to the landscape. These thoughts were going through my mind as we tried to photograph the small flock of geese on the pond outside the fence. But soon, and somewhat unexpectedly, large groups of Ross’s and/or snow geese began to arrive from the south, coming in above a row of winter-bare trees, circling a bit, and then landing on the pond, and at times filling the sky above the wetland landscape.


G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. His book, “California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra” is available from Heyday Books and Amazon.
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Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret
Snowy egret stands at rest

Snowy Egret. Sacrament Valley, California. January 8, 2016. © Copyright 2016 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Snowy egret stands at rest

I recently posted a photograph of a great egret, probably the most striking are recognizable of the egrets found in the parts of California where I photograph. That bird is found in field, creek beds, along lakes and rivers, and even in Pacific Ocean kelp beds. But it isn’t the only kind of egret found in the state. Two others are the snowy egret (seen here) and the small cattle egret. All of them often are found alone, though occasionally in small groups, and all may fly off with the least provocation if you get too close.

This snowy egret seemed to be in a rather inactive mood as I came upon it while driving around the perimeter of a wildlife refuge. Those who aren’t familiar with the California refuges and their regulations might wonder why one would drive rather than walk, but it turns out that this is the rule in most areas of the refuges. One is supposed to stay mostly inside a vehicle and make photographs from the “mobile blind” of the vehicle, supposedly since this is less stressful for the birds. So I stopped the vehicle and then very slowly moved forward a bit at a time, first to get close enough for an initial photograph and then to work my way closer for an even better image. Much to my surprise, this specimen didn’t budge at all, and I was able to stop quite close and make frame-filling photographs.


G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. His book, “California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra” is available from Heyday Books and Amazon.
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Snow Geese in Flight

Snow Geese in Flight
A flock of snow geese takes to the air above the Sacramento Valley

Snow Geese in Flight. Sacramento Valley, California. January 8, 2015. © Copyright 2016 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

A flock of snow geese takes to the air above the Sacramento Valley

Occasionally during idle moments out photographing birds, when not much else is on my mind, I try to imagine what it might be like to be one of them, to live their very different lives, especially among the migratory flocking birds like geese. (Yes, I recognize that much of their lives would seem very, very unromantic and even brutal.) One of the most difficult and interesting things to try to imagine, given that it is so far out of our own experience, is what it might be like to be airborne among so many other birds.

One of the special moments that comes when photographing the migratory geese is when something triggers them to all take to the air at once in huge groups that may number in the thousands — maelstroms of wings and sound and flight. When this happens we often simply point our cameras in that direction and begin photographing almost mindlessly. (In the best circumstances, it isn’t quite so mindless, and we pay attention to things like the background landscape and the light as this happens.) Often these lift-offs happen at a distance, but when it is closer the effect is even wilder. On this morning I was fortunate to have a viewing position that was very close to the place where the birds had settled in, and when the inevitable wild liftoff came, it was about as close as I have experienced, and I was able to photograph straight through the rising flock, from very close birds to those already farther up in the air.


G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. His book, “California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra” is available from Heyday Books and Amazon.
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Winter Wetlands, Morning

Winter Wetlands, Morning
Flooded Sacramento Valley wetlands in the early morning

Winter Wetlands, Morning. Sacramento Valley, California. January 8, 2016. © Copyright 2016 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Flooded Sacramento Valley wetlands in the early morning

While I tell myself that I go to places like this to photograph birds, the truth is that little spots like this one may be more my target. Imagine waking many hours before dawn, and against your instincts starting to move quickly and efficiently to arise, make breakfast, fix lunch, brew coffee, and load a car. Then drive many hours in the dark, radio playing, as the invisible landscape slides past and the world consists mostly of what I see in the headlight beams. Getting close to my destination the sky begins to glow a bit, but I’m still driving, in the world of a noisy car and freeway speeds.

Finally I leave the freeway and drive a relatively short distance to my Central Valley destination. My first stop is still all business — arriving, I park and change into cold weather clothing and set up camera and lenses and get back in the car. I start out on some gravel road around the area I’ve chosen to photograph, though the sun has yet to rise, and I’m focused on finding birds to photograph. A bit later I finally begin to slow down, and with the car windows rolled down in the cold morning air I stop and turn the motor off and sit next to a place like this one and everything is finally still.


G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. His book, “California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra” is available from Heyday Books and Amazon.
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All media © Copyright G Dan Mitchell and others as indicated. Any use requires advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.