Category Archives: Photographs: Northern California

Photographs from Northern California

Tundra Swans

Tundra Swans
A trio of tundra swans in flight in the Klamath Basin

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

A trio of tundra swans in flight in the Klamath Basin

I don’t usually do this, but I’m posting this photograph while I’m still in the field. It is a photograph I made earlier this evening, in the Klamath Basin in far Northern California — so far north in the state that I could look across the road and see Oregon. I’ve been photographing migratory birds in my “home range” of the California Central Valley for so long that I decided it was time to push out those boundaries a bit this season. I’ll share more about what this experience has taught me in a later post.

It is a challenge to photograph in a new place, especially when the subject is wildlife and double-especially when I arrived well after dark the previous night and had to head out again in pre-dawn darkness to find locations I’ve never been to before! Fortunately, I ended up in an area with quite a few birds — though not the dense flocks that I’m used to from some places I more frequently photograph. Here the main show involved a few golden eagles and a large number of tundra swans. I’ve only photographed tundra swans a few times in the past, since they are not all that plentiful in the places I usually visit. But here there were thousands of them, and I ended up photographing them in the morning and then again at the end of the day. From a distance grounded tundra swans look a lot like geese, though larger and with longer necks. Up close you notice that their bills are black, and they make rather different sounds that geese. Their flight patterns are not like geese either. The lumber into the air like jumbo jets loaded for intercontinental flights, gaining elevation very slowly and then flying in a smooth and level path.


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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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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Forest, Lake, and Haze

Forest, Lake, and Haze
A hazy late-summer day at a subalpine Sierra Nevada lake, Yosemite National Park

Forest, Lake, and Haze. Yosemite National Park, California. September 10, 2015. © Copyright 2015 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

A hazy late-summer day at a subalpine Sierra Nevada lake, Yosemite National Park

With all of the recent urban and street photography I have been posting — which is a bit seasonal pattern, given my travel tendencies — I’m also making an effort to go back through some older photographs from last year to find landscape photography that escaped my notice on the first pass. This always happens with photographs — for some reason certain images don’t make sense right after I make them, but when I come back to them later on with a fresh eye I see potential that I missed. Right now I’m revisiting late-summer photographs from a week-long backcountry stay at a Yosemite lake.

For me, this photograph holds many of the subtler elements of the High Sierra experience — not the spectacular grand vistas, but something deeper and ultimately perhaps more powerful. In this beautiful late-season time of year, the meadow grasses around this quiet lake have finished the wild growth phase of summer and have already turned golden-yellow in preparation for autumn and then winter. Lower angle light comes over the shoulder of the granite ridge whose base is visible beyond the trees. Widely spaced trees stand at the edges of the meadow and even trace weaknesses in the granite slabs on the higher slopes.


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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Subalpine Lake, Morning Reflections

Subalpine Lake, Morning Reflections
Morning light and reflections on the rocky shoreline of a subalpine Sierra Nevada lake

Subalpine Lake, Morning Reflections. Yosemite National Park, California. September 12, 2015. © Copyright 2015 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Morning light and reflections on the rocky shoreline of a subalpine Sierra Nevada lake

A wonderful thing about making photographs is that I get to travel backwards and forwards in time almost at will. Here it is in the middle of winter, and by looking back a few months in my archive I can go right back to a beautiful late summer week spent photographing around a Yosemite subalpine lake with a couple of friends. All of the sensory memories come right back: the stillness of the morning lake as the first sun worked its way through high clouds and haze, the memory of carrying my camera around the perimeter of that lake every morning as I looked slowly of subjects, the first colors of Sierra autumn.

We camped here for a full week, working intensively to photograph in and around one small area. If you haven’t done this you could be forgiven for wondering how in the world one could spend an entire week in area not much larger than a mile or two across. In fact, I still have those doubts at the start of any trip like this. All I can say is that, inevitably, the end of such a week comes too soon, I depart with many things left unphotographed, and I often return to these places again and find even more to see and 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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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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All media © Copyright G Dan Mitchell and others as indicated. Any use requires advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.

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.
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.