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.
A colorful High Sierra granite cliff and trees in soft light
Sitting here on a late-winter day, this late September week spent photographing in the Yosemite back-country seems so far away. (At the same time, as I watch the inevitable progress of the seasons, the upcoming summer season seems closer and closer!) Three photographers headed out to a back-country lake, where we set up a base-camp for something like nine days of photography. It might seem like photographing in one tiny area for a week might exhaust its possibilities. In fact, at the start of such a trip I often harbor such fears — but by the end of every one of them I am again reminded that it virtually never works that way. The more time spent looking in such a place, there more there is to see, and at the end of such a trip there are, inevitably, things left to be photographed on the next visit.
Not far from our camp was a rocky area that we often crossed in order to make our way around the perimeter of a nearby lake and to get to areas a bit further away. After climbing slabs the route dropped into the lower extent of a deep gully traveling down from higher terrain, and eventually I began to know these rocks and this gully very well. We had “interesting” weather during our stay, and on the day I made this photograph the light was muted by various factors including clouds and wildfire smoke.
Tens of thousands of Ross’ geese take to the dawn sky above San Joaquin Valley wetlands
We always hope for fog on our winter visits to these places where the Pacific Flyway migratory birds are found out in California’s Central Valley. Despite the attractions of clear and sunny mornings — especially when it comes to driving — the fog lends mystery to the landscape and works wonders with the early morning light. We were not disappointed on this morning, and the fog was very thick when we arrived. For a short time it was thick enough to make driving difficult, but as dawn approached the atmosphere cleared enough to let us see clouds above the airborne geese.
At this point in the season, the time when the geese depart for points (far) north is very close, and it seems like the geese must know. They seem to be much more active and they congregate in larger numbers, frequently taking to the air in astonishing clouds of thousands or tens of thousands of birds. Within minutes of our arrival on this morning, huge groups of them took to the air all over the surrounding landscape, starting out in tightly packed flocks that gradually expanded to fill the sky.
First growth of the season brings green to Sierra Nevada foothills in late winter
During late winter many parts of California undergo stunning conversion. During the previous summer the landscape dried out under summer heat. As summer turns to fall the heat does not immediately abate, and the landscape may reach its driest point. Then, in a normal year, the winter rains finally arrive. At first the changes — mud, mostly — don’t speak of spring, but at some point in the middle of winter plants again gain a foothold and begin to sprout everywhere. Short and very greens grasses spring up. Wildflowers begin to appear on the hillsides.
This photograph is of an area that seemed to be starting the late winter transformation. Though some trees are still leafless, the hills are otherwise covered with the first, short grasses. A few flowers have begun to appear on some of the chaparral plants. And beautiful light is everywhere. This begins a short but intense period of wild land growth here. The short grasses turn to lush, thick grasses. Wildflowers take over, and the leafless trees begin to show new colors.
Trees grow on a peninsula at a Yosemite subalpine lake, late summer
We have passed nearly halfway though our annual circuit around the sun since I made this photograph. It is now slightly past midwinter, and the photograph was made in late summer, a few weeks before the arrival of solar fall, though the signs of autumn were already everywhere in this drought-affected portion of the Sierra backcountry.
The haze in the atmosphere beyond the peninsula with its sunlit trees comes from wildfires that were burning all over Yosemite and the rest of the Sierra. One small one was burning just across a nearby ridge and a more distant but larger fire periodically fill the air with thick smoke. Wildfire smoke is a normal feature at the end of the season, but this year it was much worse than normal. Fortunately, every day the winds shifted, the smoke moved away, and we got some beautiful near-autumn weather — time to enjoy the golden-brown meadow grasses, walks around the lake, and the occasional climb up onto grants slabs that rose from its shoreline.
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.
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.