Category Archives: Photographs: Central California

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron
A great blue heron stands next to a Sacramento Valley pond

Great Blue Heron. Sacramento Valley, California. January 8, 2016. © Copyright 2016 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

A great blue heron stands next to a Sacramento Valley pond

As I prepare photographs to share via social media (in my continuing photo-a-day marathon, now perhaps the years old) I often have photographs lined up for posting days or weeks in the future. Occasionally one sits here on the computer for a long time before I finally share it. This photograph of a great blue heron is such a photograph — I made it almost four months ago, way back when we were in the middle of winter!

This past winter I decided to expand the range of my bird photography a bit. I’ve been photographing winter birds in Central California for the past few years, but mostly in a range from roughly Sacramento south. So it was time to connect a few dots on the map and travel out of that area a bit. One of the first extended visits took me a good distance up the Sacramento Valley on a cold winter day when snow topped the mountains to both the east and west. This specimen was hanging out along an irrigation ditch near the edge of a wildlife refuge, and it allowed me to get relatively close (“hidden” inside a vehicle) without taking flight.


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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Wetlands Dawn, Arriving Birds

Wetlands Dawn, Arriving Birds
A flock of geese prepares to land on a foggy wetlands pond at dawn

Wetlands Dawn, Arriving Birds. Central Valley, California. February 5, 2016. © Copyright 2016 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

A flock of geese prepares to land on a foggy wetlands pond at dawn

Another California winter day and another trip to visit the Central Valley and search out migratory birds and fog and atmospheric light!  Back in early February the bird action was beginning to pick up, and we would consistently find at last some geese (and often many more and other birds, too) when we arrived. Fog is one variable. I love thick fog, especially in these locations, and we often got precisely that. But on this morning the fog was thinner and earlier to dissipate, here already thin enough before dawn to let us see the winter sky.

As we watched the fog drift and thin and the sky begin to get lighter, groups of birds (mostly Ross’ geese) began to arrive, circling a bit and then landing on the ponds. The arcing curve of this flock’s flight, descending towards the right and then beginning to circle back, is visible in this photograph if you look closely. A few earlier arrivals float on the pond in an area lit by reflected 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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Winter Fog, Water, Island

Winter Fog, Water, Island
Winter fog obscures the view of a wetland island

Winter Fog, Water, Island. Central Valley, California. February 15, 2016. © Copyright 2016 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Winter fog obscures the view of a wetland island

This is one of a pair of similar photographs I made in this spot on a lovely dense fog morning out in the winter Central Valley. (The other is simpler and doesn’t include the foreground plants.) We had arrived quite a bit earlier and had already done a circuit of the gravel road that encircles the location, and we were now on our second loop. Believe it or not, the fog had become a lot less thick by the time I made the photograph!

Imagine that everything is still, but that the sounds of birds are everywhere — a combination of visual stillness but audio tumult in every direction. As I watched this little island the fog continued to thin and thicken, and at times it almost became invisible. Shortly after I made the photograph the clearing began in earnest and the beaks began to develop in the shallow tule fog.


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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Twilight Birds

Twilight Birds
A flock of geese against twilight sky above the Central Valley

Twilight Birds. Central Valley, California. February 5, 2016. © Copyright 2016 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

A flock of geese against twilight sky above the Central Valley

February was mostly a very good month for photographing migratory birds in the Central Valley this winter. This was a relief, quite honestly, after the past four years of drought and increasingly dire conditions in the Valley and throughout the state. In normal times, the wildlife refuges where I often photograph can be filled with water and life in the winter — flowing creeks and flooded fields where thousands of birds collect. But much of this water comes from sources that are not local, and as they dried up the refuges also began to shrink the acreage that was under water. It was sad to see locations that I’ve thought of as ponds become plain, dry fields. And at times the birds seemed to suffer a bit, too, or at least change their habits. Back in the late fall, before the course of the winter season became clear and Northern and Central California received rain again, we were concerned about what would happen this year.

But in most of California the rains came, at times heavy, and water flows once again. The birds returned, and sometimes it seemed that there numbers were exploding with the return of water. By February it wasn’t uncommon to find many thousands of birds in the refuges, and by late in the month the scene was downright wild, with all kinds of geese, huge numbers of cranes, and much more. In the evening things become active, and as the light fails I often continue to photograph, but at longer shutter speeds that allow me to work with the moving poetry of blurred birds in flight against dusk 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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Geese Above, Cranes Below

Geese Above, Cranes Below
Late winter flocks of Ross’ and other geese and lesser sandhill cranes in the San Joaquin Valley

Geese Above, Cranes Below. Central Valley, California. February 26, 2016. © Copyright 2016 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Late winter flocks of Ross’ and other geese and lesser sandhill cranes in the San Joaquin Valley

Although it isn’t quite over yet, as the first day of spring approaches I have been thinking back over this winter season and especially the experiences of again photographing Central Valley migratory birds. There is far too much write about all of it in a single post, so I’ll just share a bit about the transitions and process of the season, at least as I observed it.

In the early fall I begin to look forward to this season of birds and fog and winter light, though the anticipation is tempered a bit by early season opportunities to photograph other subjects, especially the fall colors of the Sierra and elsewhere. But sometime in late October I start to think a lot about the great annual migration, and I start to watch for signs that it is beginning. This past year I think it was probably late November or early December when I made my first trip, and I recall enjoying the landscape once again but being disappointed that the birds hadn’t really shown up yet. After four years of drought I wondered if the bird population had been damaged. Then a bit later in September I began to see a few more geese, but they were not very plentiful and they were not always where I hoped to find them. It wasn’t until January that they began to be a bit more common, but soon the numbers increased and by February I was seeing absolutely huge numbers. By the time I made this photograph in late February I was frequently seeing tens of thousands of geese, along with many hundreds of perhaps thousands of cranes — which is exactly what we see in this photograph.


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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Three Lesser Sandhill Cranes

Three Lesser Sandhill Cranes
Three lesser sandhill cranes fly against blue sky above the San Joaquin Valley

Three Lesser Sandhill Cranes. Central Valley, California. February 15, 2016. © Copyright 2016 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Three lesser sandhill cranes fly against blue sky above the San Joaquin Valley

These beautiful sandhill cranes are found up and down California’s Central Valley and beyond. Many things characterize the winter “bird-scape” in the state, but high on my list is the sound of these birds, whether directly overhead or somewhere off in the fog, invisible but often present in large numbers. They are not as numerous as the geese, but at times their numbers can become quite astounding, especially when they find a good place to feed. I think that they can be a bit awkward looking on the ground, but in flight they are transformed. Their flying pattern features slower wing motion, periods of gliding, a flat trajectory, and often wingtip-to-tail relationships with other cranes.

They aren’t always easy to photograph, though if you come (quietly!) upon a group on the ground and they don’t fly away you can often get good photographs, and you may even see the “dancing cranes” behavior. Photographing them in flight can be just a bit tricky. They seem uneasy about flying directly over humans, and birds that appear headed for your position will often divert at the last moment. Fortunately, they can be very attractive viewed from the side — perhaps more so that a straight-on view or photographed from underneath. These three were part of a larger group that was flying at low elevation between two areas of pasture-land.


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.

Evening Geese

Evening Geese
A large flock of geese takes to the air in evening light

Evening Geese. Central Valley, California. February 5, 2016. © Copyright 2016 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

A large flock of geese takes to the air in evening light

Each day among these migratory birds moves through a kind of cycle, with variations that eventually become familiar but which don’t become any less compelling or exciting. It typically starts with a pre-dawn drive and arrival at a likely spot to find them — preferably in fog! It is always thrilling to catch the first sight and sound of the birds. The day continues, likely passing from fog to hazy sunshine, as the birds tend to settle into midday routines. Sometime after lunch it is (almost always) time for a break, but the work resumes by mid-afternoon. At first things happen slowly, but as evening approaches the pace picks up – more birds coming and going, more frequent take-offs, light that evolves in beautiful ways — and before long it is sunset and then dusk.

Early morning and evening are times of daily transition for the birds, so there is often a lot of action. Although a mass take-off can occur at almost any time if something sets off the flock, they become more likely and more impressive in the evening. They also become more difficult to photograph! As light fades and the subject becomes more interesting, the photographic challenges of low light increase. Rather than giving in to the dimming light I often take a different approach and embrace the motion blur, following the general mass of birds but allowing the fine details to soften and merge.


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.
Blog | About | Flickr | Twitter | FacebookGoogle+ | 500px.com | LinkedIn | Email


All media © Copyright G Dan Mitchell and others as indicated. Any use requires advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.