Category Archives: Photographs: Wildlife

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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Great Egret

Great Egret
A great egret in flight against cloudy sky

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

A great egret in flight against cloudy sky

This particular egret and I shared a few brief seconds of photography as the bird suddenly emerged, already in flight, from a brushy area along the edge of a pond at a Sacramento Valley wildlife refuge. In most ways, the egrets are at their most graceful while in flight, but this is when they are also the most difficult to photograph. Usually they take off and fly away from the photographer, and they are soon too far away to photograph. This one, however, flew parallel to my position and gave me a good side view. I only had a brief interval to raise my camera, find the egret in the viewfinder, and track it as I squeezed of a sequence of photographs.

I shared another one a few days ago. I interpreted that one in black and white, so I thought I’d work this one out in color. There was a great deal of softness in the original image — while parts of the wings are in focus, the large aperture and motion of the bird left other parts soft. So I decided to go with that soft effect and, in fact, amplify it and to then also go with a bit of a high key treatment, further emphasizing the brightness of the bird against a bright, cloudy 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 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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All media © Copyright G Dan Mitchell and others as indicated. Any use requires advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.

Great Egret

Great Egret
Great egret in flight above winter landscape, Sacramento Valley

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

Great egret in flight above winter landscape, Sacramento Valley

I photographed this great egret in flight at a refuge in the Sacrament Valley recently. Despite being quite common birds, they are not quite easy to photograph as one might think, at least not when in flight. If you are, as I was on this occasion, approaching very slowly in a vehicle, the birds will often let you get quite close. Then they either stay on the ground, perhaps walking away, and providing a less interesting photographic subject, or they suddenly take flight and most often quickly move away from you. And the backsides of egrets in flight are, while not entirely uninteresting, not nearly as interesting as frontal or side views.

This one emerged from some brush along the refuge’s perimeter roadway and flew past my position. I managed to bring the camera up fairly quickly, but it is not an easy thing to go from (slowly) driving a car to stopping the vehicle, raising a camera equipped with a long lens, and almost instantly trying to track and photograph the bird. This is my way of explaining that in a series of perhaps 10-12 rapid images of the bird, only a few provided an appealing combination of the bird in an interesting position, bird in the frame (!), and a background that worked. As I worked on the photograph I felt that it was softer than I had hoped for, but then I realized that I could work with that softness rather than against it, and I came up with a somewhat abstracted view of the beautiful and grace flight of this bird against an amorphous background of distant clouds.


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.