Wildlife Photography

A Beautiful Valley

Sandhill cranes at sunrise, San Joaquin Valley, CA, USA

Sandhill cranes at sunrise, San Joaquin Valley, California

During this past winter Claudia and I spent a lot of time in California’s Central Valley. This area isn’t known for its scenic beauty, but we found a lot of beauty there.

This was once a vast region of seasonal wetlands and flower-filled prairies, teeming with waterfowl, elk, pronghorn antelope, wolves, grizzly bears, and endless acres of springtime flowers. It’s estimated that 500,000 tule elk once roamed this region, and early visitors described flocks of wintering geese so large and dense they darkened the midday sky. This “American Serengeti” existed less than 200 years ago, in an area now occupied by farmlands, towns, and cities.


Motion and Serendipity

Sandhill crane takeoff, San Joaquin Valley, CA, USA

Sandhill crane takeoff, San Joaquin Valley, California. 327mm, 1/500 sec. at f/5.6, ISO 2000.

Every year Claudia and I photograph migratory birds wintering in California’s Central Valley. It’s a world of constant motion, with groups of birds taking off, landing, moving from fields to ponds (and back), skimming over marshes, or probing the water for food.

It’s that motion that we find so captivating, and it’s that motion that’s so challenging to photograph. It takes lots of practice to learn how to follow birds in flight, keep them in focus, adjust exposures on the fly, zoom in and out as needed, and make instant decisions about composition.


From the Archives: Tule Elk in Fog

Tule elk bulls in fog, Pt. Reyes National Seashore, CA, USA

Tule elk bulls in fog, Pt. Reyes National Seashore, California

This photograph is from very deep in my archives: 1988. At that point I had only been photographing seriously for a few years. Claudia and I met in ’84, got married in ’86, and in ’88 were both working at The Ansel Adams Gallery and living in Yosemite Valley.

In those early years the main focus of my photography was wildlife. I also photographed landscapes and other nature subjects, but wildlife was my passion. I used to spend hours in the wonderful Yosemite Research Library, reading studies about wildlife habitats and animal behavior.


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.


Natural Beauty in Motion—Two New Videos

On Wednesday Claudia and I returned to the San Joaquin Valley with our friend Kirk. We had another great day, capped by watching more than 10,000 Ross’ geese land in a pond right in front of us, silhouetted against the dusk sky. Claudia and I came back the next morning and watched them all fly out, the white birds reflected in the still water.

Video is a great medium for showing the incredible sights and sounds of these birds, and Claudia did an amazing job of capturing these events with our little Flip Mino video camera. At the end of each video you’ll also see some stills that I made.

A Blizzard of Birds

Wall of geese taking flight yesterday at Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Ross’ geese taking flight yesterday at Merced National Wildlife Refuge

I’ve seen many beautiful natural phenomena in my life: lightning storms, lunar rainbows, Horsetail Fall turning into a ribbon of orange water at sunset. But the most impressive and magical thing I’ve witnessed might be the sound and movement of large flocks of snow geese. The roar and synchronized motion of 10,000 glittering white birds taking flight is unforgettable.