California’s Central Valley, Winter 2020-2021
During the pandemic winter of 2020-2021, my wife 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 and cities.

But small remnants of that wild past have been preserved in national and state wildlife refuges, state parks, and private duck clubs. Every year millions of ducks and geese migrate from as far as Siberia to spend the winter in the Central Valley, giving us a glimpse of what this area used to be like. Even during summer these marshes, woodlands, and fields have a quiet beauty all their own. But in winter, when birds arrive in vast numbers, they vibrate with life.

It’s quite a challenge to convey even a tiny bit of this splendor in photographs. There are no well-known landmarks or no iconic scenes to be captured. There are moments of indescribable beauty, but they’re fleeting, dependent on light, clouds, fog, and the movement of the animals. Even the angle of a bird’s wings can make the difference between a compelling photograph and a mediocre one.

But I keep trying to capture some of this beauty, to convey a little bit of the awe and wonder I feel in these Central-Valley marshes while watching the sun break through the fog as wave after wave of cranes take flight, or hearing the deafening roar of 20,000 geese flying overhead in the waning light of dusk. Conveying even a hint of those feelings in a still photograph is a daunting task, but one I feel compelled to pursue because of the connection I feel with these places and those moments.

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