Category Archives: Photographs: Wildlife

Dawn Arrival

Dawn Arrival
Winter geese fly in to a Central Valley wetlands pond at dawn

Dawn Arrival. Central Valley, California. January 1, 2016. © Copyright 2016 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Winter geese fly in to a Central Valley wetlands pond at dawn

Near the end of May I revisited some photographs from the past year, including a set that I made on an annual New Year’s Day visit to California’s Central Valley. For several years now a group of friends, photographers, artists, and more have greeted the dawn of the new year by going together before dawn to celebrate the new year and the annual spectacle of the winter bird migration into the valley. So, during the first week when the temperatures here in California rose into the nineties, I enjoyed recalling a foggy morning when they sat near freezing.

We arrived a half hour before dawn to find patchy, thinning fog. We set out trying to determine, in the half-light, where the birds might be, and soon some were spotted settling in on a nearby pond. We headed that way, and I lined up a view across the pond, past quiet foreground birds and past a row of trees toward the eastern sky, which was gradually beginning to brighten. I made this photograph as another small group of birds was flying in to join those already on the pond


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 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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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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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.
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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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Lesser Sandhill Crane

Lesser Sandhill Crane
A lesser sandhill crane in flight above California’s San Joaquin Valley

Lesser Sandhill Crane. Central Valley, California. February 26, 2016. © Copyright 2016 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

A lesser sandhill crane in flight above California’s San Joaquin Valley

These beautiful birds have a big place among the Central Valley migratory birds. Although they appear in smaller numbers than the geese, at times you may see hundreds or thousands of them in one place at various locations up and down the valley. They have a striking cry that is instantly recognizable and very different from that of other Central Valley birds. With their size, their slower wing flapping, frequent coasting, and level flight from place to place they are also easy to recognize when they are airborne.

Tracking individual birds with a camera and long lens is a challenge, especially when the bird gets close enough to become large in the frame. (It takes practice to track them. The ideal is to eventually become quick and smooth, and to remain aware enough to think about the bird’s wing and head position and even about what it in the background.) On the day when I made this photograph there were many, many cranes about. I managed to position myself between two groups, and I waited there quietly for cranes to fly across my position.


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.