Category Archives: Photographs: Flight

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.
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.

White-Fronted Geese in Flight

White-Fronted Geese in Flight
A small group of white-fronted geese in flight about the Sacramento Valley

White-Fronted Geese in Flight. Central Valley, California. January 8, 2016. © Copyright 2016 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

A small group of white-fronted geese in flight about the Sacramento Valley

I photographed this group of white-fronted geese on one of my excursion to new California bird photography locations this past winter. It wasn’t that many years ago that I first “discovered” the huge population of migratory birds in California’s Central Valley, on a weekend after a colleague made an off-hand comment about birds as we waited in line at a coffee stand that sent me off to investigate. I went to a place where there were sandhill cranes and, eventually, a sky magnificently full of birds, most of which I could not identify. I was hooked. Soon I went to a location near that spot, and eventually became quite a frequent visitor to several places including one that isn’t too far from where I live.

Last year I started thinking that I should expand my horizons a bit and start to seek out other locations along the Pacific Flyway. I pushed a bit further up the Central Valley and eventually managed to spend time up along the California-Oregon border. I photographed this photogenic group at one of those upper Central Valley areas. Visiting such a place for the first time can be a bit tricky. It takes a while to get to know the rhythms of a place — where and when which birds show up, where the interesting backgrounds are, how far to drive to get a cup of coffee… At this new refuge I had almost no idea what I was doing. I hoped to find one kind of geese, but they were scarce — yet I found other things that I saw less often in my usual haunts: bald eagles, lots of night herons, an occasion tundra swan, and many white-fronted geese. Eventually I found a spot by a pond where huge flocks of geese were coming and going, a mixture of mostly snow geese and white-fronted geese, and I began to feel that I might be able to figure the place out.


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.

Two Sandhill Cranes in Flight

Two Sandhill Cranes in Flight
A pair of lesser sandhill cranes in flight above California’s San Joaquin Valley

Two Sandhill Cranes in Flight. San Joaquin Valley, California. February 26, 2016. © Copyright 2016 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

A pair of lesser sandhill cranes in flight above California’s San Joaquin Valley

Near the end of the winter migratory bird season in the San Joaquin Valley, where we photograph these birds all winter, the birds seem to collect in ever larger number and become more and more active, especially by this late-February period. On this morning visit to a favorite bird photography destination we found tens of thousands of Ross’ geese, along with many white-fronted geese and others, plus huge groups of lesser sandhill cranes. They became active shortly before dawn and didn’t stop until we departed hours later.

I have photographed the sandhill cranes here on many previous occasions, but this turned out to be one of my best opportunities yet to photograph them in the air. Large flocks were on the ground on both sides of the gravel road on which we were driving, and if we stopped in the right spots they would fly almost directly overhead and they moved from spot to spot. These are beautiful birds, graceful in their gliding flight with striking red patches on their heads, and an instantly recognizable cry.


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.

Tundra Swans, Winter Sky

Tundra Swans, Winter Sky
Tundra swans against a cloud-covered winter sky

Tundra Swans, Winter Sky. Klamath Basin, California. February 12, 2016. © Copyright 2016 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Tundra swans against a cloud-covered winter sky

I photographed my first tundra swans a few years back, when I was just getting interesting in photographing the migratory birds of the Pacific Flyway. Actually, it was quite literally the first time I did this sort of photography. On the basis of a chance encounter with a friend who just happened to mention a place where sandhill cranes could be found, I decided this sounded as interesting as anything else on my agenda, and off I went, to a place where I was stunned to find a sky filled with birds, almost none of which I recognized, much less could name. Later when I shared one of the photographs of a line of birds flying above me, someone said, “hey, those are tundra swans.” If you say so! Somehow, possibly because of their relative scarcity where I photograph, these birds intrigued me.

Earlier this month I made another bird photography trip, also more or less on a the basis of a whim, though perhaps a little bit more informed this time and with some significant experience under my belt. Yet, arriving in this place, I really did not know what I would find — but I was very happy to discover that it was a major stopping place for these beautiful birds. Ironically I “saw” some early in the morning but didn’t recognize them. Later, during the “boring light” hours of the day I found a big group in a pond, and later that day I photographed them again. There are probably many ways to photograph them, but one seems to be to go where the birds will fly over — and that’s pretty much what I did here. I simply figured out that they were taking a certain route across a valley, and then I put myself under that spot and waited.


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.

Flock of Tundra Swans

Flock of Tundra Swans
A flock of tundra swans aloft in evening light about the Klamath Basin

Flock of Tundra Swans. Klamath Basin, Oregon. February 12, 2015. © Copyright 2016 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

A flock of tundra swans aloft in evening light about the Klamath Basin

More tundra swans — and I’m not finished yet! I don’t get to see these birds all that often at my usual Central California wildlife photography locations, so finding quite large numbers up here along the California-Oregon border has been pretty exciting. It turns out that while I was here a bit too early for the massive migration of some birds (I hear the geese will be back here in a couple of weeks) I seem to have arrived at just about the right moment for the tundra swans.

This day turned out to be the best for photographing these birds. Early in the morning I happened on a pair of ponds lining a short roadway, and both ponds held good size flocks. The morning light wasn’t quite right so I moved on and photographed other things, but in the evening I was back. During the final half hour or so before sunset, flocks of these birds began to stream back from the south, and I quickly headed back to this pond where I had seen  them earlier, figuring that some of them might land here. I was not disappointed! And the light was spectacular, starting out as typical warm-colored late day light against blue toned sky and clouds, and then later lighting up with a brilliant colored sunset.


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.

Geese Rising

Geese Rising
A flock of geese takes to the air above San Joaquin Valley wetlands

Geese Rising. San Joaquin Valley, California. December 6, 2015. © Copyright 2015 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

A flock of geese takes to the air above San Joaquin Valley wetlands

Sometimes bad light turns out to be good light. Late in the day I made one last circuit of this location, hoping to find some birds to photograph in sunset light. However, the light was obscured by the clouds of an incoming weather system and much of the light at this location became rather flat and gray. (The light to the west was another story, and another photograph made within moments of this one includes a rather spectacular sky in the distance.) It was cloudy enough that most of the light had faded before sunset, and there wasn’t much left after that at all.

Yet… the flat light has its advantages. One of the challenges of photographing airborne birds is that when they rise against the sky they are often lit from above, and it can be difficult to get a photograph that isn’t simply a silhouette. But the soft light fills those shadows, and here there was also a bit of gentle light coming from the western sky through sunset clouds that had picked up a bit of color. As I stood around watching a large group of geese (mostly snow geese) settled in a pond, the suddenly erupted into flight en masse, in the typical wild show of fluttering wings and loud vocalization. The turned and passed right in front of me before continuing on to some unknown place far to the west.


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.

The Landing

The Landing
A brown pelican joins the flock on a rock along the Pacific coast of California

The Landing. California Coast. July 212, 2015. © Copyright 2015 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

A brown pelican joins the flock on a rock along the Pacific coast of California

This photograph has appeared here at my website and in subsequent social media posts already, but merely as an example in a post I shared about some slightly technical matters related to a camera I use. (More on that in a moment.) Since I feel like the photograph stands not only as an example of how a lens and a camera work, but also as a photograph, this time I’m sharing it for the latter reason. We had spent a couple of days in the Monterey and Big Sur area, photographing along that spectacular coastline, and now we were headed home. We decided to work our say north along the coast, eventually turning inland just south of San Francisco.

Just before that homeward turn we passed a small, rocky island just a few yards off the actual coast, and I realized that it was covered with many scores of brown pelicans. I love photographing these birds, and it is somewhat unusual to see so many in one place, so we stopped and walked out to the bluff to make some photographs. The light was challenging since it was coming from almost directly behind the birds — but in this case that worked well as there is a light fringe around the bird, some light comes through its wing feathers, and additional light reflects back up from surf and rocks as this pelican lands. Oh, and that technical article? I made this photograph with a pretty unusual “birding” setup — the 50.6MP Canon EOS 5Ds R with a 100-400mm zoom lens with a 1.4x teleconverter attached!


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.