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
First dawn light descends the eastern face of the Cottonwood Mountains and touches the desert floor
A morning like this on the desert flats, surrounded by arid and rugged mountains, waiting for the sun to rise, is very special. We arrived in the dim, pre-dawn light and set out across the flats toward the edge of dunes, passing across scrubby desert plants and over rocky and sandy ground, listening to the steady crunching of footsteps in the silent landscape. We probably should have started a bit earlier, but we lingered a bit too long over coffee, and as we approached the edge of the dunes the sun began to move down the face of the mountains to the west.
The light on the mountains was set off against a sky darkened by the clouds of a passing weather front, and thin clouds intermittently shadowed the dawn light. It worked its way down from the ridges to the base of the mountains and then it very quickly began to light the terrain around us, first with gently cloud filtered light and soon more intensely. We quickly stopped walking and looked around for any nearby subject that might serve as a canvas for this light — I found a few long plants nearby growing in sand and moved to position them in front of the mountains as the soft light touched them.
These remarkable pinnacles stand just off to the side of a route I often use to get to Death Valley National Park, and that’s where I was reading on this day back in March. The pinnacles are just outside of their namesake town of Trona, a rather isolated and seemingly decaying old town whose main business seems to be extracting minerals from the playa holding Searles Lake. A drive through the town reveals that it is still alive, but that it is suffering the malady of so many isolated desert towns depending on extraction industries, namely an eventual decline. There are many buildings that have clearly just been abandoned.
The pinnacles are visible a few miles away from Trona, out in the valley just south of the lack. They appear as a long row of huge, tooth-like formations. I understand that they are ancient tufa formations, related to but much larger than the similar formations in some other well-known California locations. I have been contemplating photographing them for years, and from time to time I stop and drive out there. The main challenge has always been the lighting, and every time I’ve been there the light has been the stark, clear sky light of desert day, which is not always conducive to photography. This time that light was softened a bit but a few high clouds and some haze, and as we explored the pinnacles I saw this juxtaposition of near and far towers.
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.
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.
This is one of a pair of similar photographs I made in this spot on a lovely dense fog morning out in the winter Central Valley. (The other is simpler and doesn’t include the foreground plants.) We had arrived quite a bit earlier and had already done a circuit of the gravel road that encircles the location, and we were now on our second loop. Believe it or not, the fog had become a lot less thick by the time I made the photograph!
Imagine that everything is still, but that the sounds of birds are everywhere — a combination of visual stillness but audio tumult in every direction. As I watched this little island the fog continued to thin and thicken, and at times it almost became invisible. Shortly after I made the photograph the clearing began in earnest and the beaks began to develop in the shallow tule fog.
Evening rain and sandstorm as sun illuminates the Grapevine Mountains
During the spring season in Death Valley National Park almost anything can happen. It can be 90 degrees or higher, or it might snow. Days may be pleasant to sunny, or it could be overcast with huge winds and dust storms or rain. We just spent the better part of five days there, and I think I saw as great a range of conditions as I’ve encountered before. The second evening was particularly remarkable. We were up in Panamint Mountains when we first noticed the tell-tale haze of dust storms, and by the time we returned to the Valley it was so windy that there was nothing to do but hunker down and wait it out. Near sunset the winds began to abate a bit and we ventured outside. I heard a few claps of thunder and it began to rain huge drops. Later we discovered that it had snowed on the highest peaks.
A few days later the conditions were supposed to be more benign. We spend early morning hours photographing out on the dunes, then did a midday and afternoon hike up a beautiful canyon. Exiting the canyon we were surprised to see dust beginning to rise again, since the forecast had called for very light winds. By the time we got back to Stovepipe Wells the winds were howling, light rain was falling, and dust filled the atmosphere. A bit later things calmed down and I decided to make a quick evening trip to a nearby high point from which I could get an overview of the valley. Arriving there I could see a wild combination of dramatic light on up-valley mountains, rain falling on their summits, and the dust storm growing below. Within minutes of making this photograph the wind began to howl and the dust enveloped my position and I retreated once more.