Winter Pilgrimage

1. Ross's geese taking flight in the fog

1. Ross's geese taking flight in the fog

I’ve had a love affair and obsession with snow geese, along with their close cousins Ross’s geese, for 25 years. Watching a large flock of these birds take flight, filling the sky from horizon to horizon while deafening your ears with their calls, is an unforgettable, transcendent experience.

I’ve photographed these birds in every way imaginable over the years. You can see more images of them in my album of bird photographs on Google+, including some deliberate blurs, and a flash-blur. Last Wednesday and Thursday Claudia and I drove down to the San Joaquin Valley once again to photograph birds. This time I focused on capturing ethereal images of geese in the fog, and tried looking straight into the late-afternoon sun. I’ve included some notes on the accompanying photos a little further down.

On Wednesday we also met our friends David Hoffman, Charlotte Hoffman, Kirk Keeler, and G Dan Mitchell at the refuge. Dan has posted several images from that day on his blog; I particularly like this one. David also posted photos on Google+, including one with uncountable numbers of geese. And Charlotte wrote a nice blog post about the day, with photos and links to videos.

Also, you can see these images larger in my album on Google+. And if you missed it, last year Claudia captured some great video footage of geese flying in at dusk, and flying out the next morning.

About the Photographs

#1 – Ross’s geese taking flight in the fog

Fog is common in California’s Central Valley in the winter, and I’ve been trying for a long time to capture the soft, white-on-white effect of snow or Ross’s geese in the mist. But you need some luck. If the fog is too thick you can’t see the birds unless they’re really close. Once the fog starts to lift it can quickly turn into a dull, low overcast.

On Wednesday morning we found a dense, low layer of fog, and a huge flock of geese right next to the tour road. Here, about 90 minutes after sunrise, the fog was just starting to lift, with a hint of sunlight breaking through. This image and the next are as close as I’ve come to capturing the misty, white-on-white photograph I’ve imagined.

#2 – Ross’s geese landing in the fog

I posted this the other day, but thought it should be included in this album too. I like the simplicity of this photo, while the previous one is more about ordered chaos.

#3 – Liftoff

This image isn’t ordered chaos – just chaos. Part of this huge flock took flight, disturbed for some unknown reason, and this frame was made just as the group in front of me lifted off.

#4 – Ross’s geese taking flight at sunset

This photograph was an experiment. It’s not usually a good idea to photograph right into the sun like this – too much contrast, and a high risk of getting lens flare. But, as I said, I’ve tried just about everything imaginable with these birds, so why not this?

I hoped that a bird or group of birds might block enough of the sun to eliminate the flare. There was no way to time this – I just held down the motor drive as groups of geese took off and hoped for the best. In this frame a bird does partially block the sun, and there’s even a little starburst effect, but I still had to clone out some flare. The sun and its reflection in the water are blown out, but that’s acceptable to me, as that’s what you’d see in real life. I used Lightroom 4 Beta for the initial processing; it’s new and improved highlight recovery abilities did a much better job of handling the areas around the sun than Lightroom 3.

#5 – Moon, willow tree, and sandhill cranes

The next morning we found much less fog than the previous day, but there was a little bit in one corner of the refuge, and I captured this early image of three cranes flying past the setting moon.

#6 – Sunrise, moonset, and Ross’s geese

Once more we found a huge flock of geese near the tour road, with more arriving every minute. This image shows some of the new arrivals lit by the first rays of sun, with the moon behind.

—Michael Frye

2. Ross's geese landing in the fog

2. Ross's geese landing in the fog

3. Liftoff

3. Liftoff

4. Ross's geese taking flight at sunset

4. Ross's geese taking flight at sunset

5. Moon, willow tree, and sandhill cranes

5. Moon, willow tree, and sandhill cranes

6. Sunrise, moonset, and Ross's geese

6. Sunrise, moonset, and Ross's geese

Related Posts: A Blizzard of Birds; Natural Beauty in Motion

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author and photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to YosemiteYosemite Meditations, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters, plus the eBook Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom. He has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.


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30 Responses to “Winter Pilgrimage”

  1. Adarsh Dattani says:

    Great shots Michael!

    2. Ross’s geese landing in the fog almost has a another world / celestial feel to it!

    Maybe it’s just me, but in any case that is my favorite shot :)

  2. Eric Jaeger says:

    I was gonna say “#2 and #4″ But they’re all great. I especially like the way you used the fog to create a sense of indefinite form and distance. The sunset shot is, simply, spectacular.

  3. Susanne says:

    Stunning!! #5 and #6 are my favorites…maybe I’m a luna(r)tic…;-)
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts while shooting.

  4. Kelly Wall says:

    Oh my gosh Michael, they’re beautiful! I think #6 is my favorite :-)

  5. John says:

    Hi Michael,

    As always, great work and thank you so much for sharing your beautiful photos.

  6. Ohhhhhh, Number #4, such a hard decision. Could I ever have a hope of being this good! Probably not, but I can enjoy. We get geese on our ranch and a plethora of other bits and nibs of wildlife being in the Trinity Alps bordering the official wildnerness area. I just wish I could figure out how to make art of all the beauty around me!

  7. Ahhh, such beauty frozen in time. And such a difficult task to capture that moment in a pleasing composition and light during all that chaos and frenetic movement. My two favorites are #1, the foggy landing and #5, the sunset landing. Thanks for sharing my blog link!

  8. Maria Sacadura says:

    As always great shots.My favorite is #4 but is a very difficult choice because the light is splendid.Thanks for sharing Michael.

  9. Vivienne says:

    I like them all, because they are all depicting something a little bit different. This must be amazing to see in person!

  10. Michael Frye says:

    Thanks Vivienne, and yes, it is amazing in person! Photos really can’t do it justice.

  11. [...] For example, I was able to get smoother transitions around the sun in one of the photographs from this post (“Ross’s geese taking flight at [...]

  12. Al Kawasaki says:

    Hi Michael,
    Thanks for all of your posts. You have inspired me to go the the Merced Refuge. The refuge website said “the car makes a good blind”. Do you do that or do you stealthily move behind cover. If so, do you recommend waterproof rubber boots?

    • Michael Frye says:

      Al, you can’t go stalking birds on foot in the refuge — it’s against regulations. In fact you’re required to stay in your car except at certain spots. Even if you were allowed to roam around on foot I wouldn’t recommend it, as it wouldn’t be very productive. The animals are used to cars, but are more wary of people on foot, so staying in your car is much better.

  13. All lovely, Michael — but that first one with geese fading into the fog is especially magical for me.


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