This morning I read the first report of Sandhill Cranes heard flying south over the Sacramento area. Our winter visitors are starting to arrive — and in case anyone is wondering, this is a few weeks early, but given the weird weather in the western region, nothing surprises me any more.
I am not a summer person, I haven’t been a summer person for many years. Society, I think, puts too much emphasis on summer; as kids, we were programmed to prefer summer because that’s when school was out and we were free, and so there’s a strong social emphasis on summer as the preferred option.
As a photographer in the bay area, and as a wildlife photographer, I have to admit summer is my least favorite time and when I’m most likely to leave the camera in the bag. Here in Silicon Valley the skies tend to either be filled with the murky grey of the marine layer or go cloudless and a fairly featureless and boring blue. Sunrises and sunsets can be great — once in a while — and fogged out or boringly weak most of the time. The end of spring migration means a relative paucity of “interesting” birds and there are only so many times you can go shooting snowy egrets or red-tailed hawks before you wonder why you’re taking more images that look like last year’s images.
So as a birder and bird photographer, I’m always waiting anxiously for that first sign of fall migration, and as a landscape photographer I can’t wait for the heat to break and the storms to start moving in and giving me the chance of interesting skies that don’t require four hour drives to the Sierra.
I’ve talked to a number of nature photographers, and while their opinions on summer may vary (although a lot of us prefer other seasons), one thing seems universal. All of us, at some point, wake up, look around at the light and the sky, and think to ourselves “Fall is coming”.
For me, that happened last week, and suddenly I am starting to feel enthusiastic about photography again, and I’m starting to do some simple planning about trips and priorities. My ability to plan is limited because of some of the other things happening in life right now and not knowing exactly what the status or time requirements will be, but I can at least start thinking through priorities and what kind of locations I want to try to visit.
One of the things I’ve been worried about is the impact of the drought on water supplies for the refuges. In talking to various people, I’ve been told they’re getting the same allocations they got last year — 75% of their full allocation, so the refuges should be similar to the last couple of years. Many other areas that have traditionally been supportive environments for birds, like a good number of the rice farmers in the central valley, are unlikely to be as lucky and we will pretty clearly see a lot more fallowed and dry ground and fewer forage locations for birds. This will cause them to pile up in greater numbers in the refuges, which causes stress to the birds so they don’t thrive as well, but also the high concentrations can lead to illness outbreaks, such as the avian botulism that’s killed thousands of birds up in the clear lake area that last couple of falls. So it’s going to be a tougher year for the birds in general.
Last winter I did a weekend up around Sacramento and Colusa NWR because that’s barely in the range of a (long and exhausting) day trip, and it was very productive. I’m thinking about extending that by a couple of days so I have some more time up there, explore a couple of other nearby refuges, and have some time to put in some energy towards shooting images that fill out a shot list for what I’m thinking of turning into some kind of field/travel guide to the refuges. The idea is very preliminary and I need to flesh it out, but I’m thinking I need travel-style material as well as the normal bird/wildlife and landscape work. I want to continue to expand out the work I started with my Central Valley portfolio and look at creating new material explaining and promoting the refuges.
I’m hoping to hit the Lodi area twice, and the Merced/Los Banos area 3-4 times. I may try to do long weekends once or twice and try to explore some of the other preserves and refuges in that area, such as Kesterston which is an area with a rather infamous but important past in the preservation of the refuges and the fight against agricultural pollution in the valley.
I’d like to spend some time at some of the southern central valley locations. I’ve been to Kern NWR a few times, but I’ve never seriously shot there. I’d really like to finally get to Kern River Preserve (a different place) near Weldon, up the 178 east of Bakersfield. Every year I tell myself this is the year I finally get to Salton Sea; if I don’t do it soon, there may not be any Salton Sea left. Since I’m on the I-5 tango and will be with repeated trips to Orange County over the next few months, there will be opportunities to take a day here or there to explore, I hope. I never got a chance to visit the San Diego area refuges, maybe I can work out a trip there. I’m also hoping to be able to schedule a trip up into Klamath, but I don’t know when I’ll pull that off — Klamath, Clear and tule Lake and the lava beds monument would make a heck of a trip.
Laurie and I are planning Christmas in Yosemite, which I’ve wanted to do for years. I’ve done some winter visits to Yosemite and love it that time of year, and I’m hoping this trip will live up to those previous visits.
Finally, looking a bit further out, I’m hoping that 2016 is the year I return to Yellowstone for another visit, but it’s far too early to think about planning that trip yet. I’ve thought about a trip out to Grand Canyon this winter, but right now I’m thinking I want to focus on the refuges more, but that might change; I could hit Salton Sea on the way back, for instance…
One big unknown in all of this: what is El Nino going to do to (and hopefully) for us? Is this the winter we all sit in the room by the fire watching it rain or snow? Or will we end up with another dry and disturbing winter?
In any event, you can tell fall is closing in when I find myself thinking about my winter shooting. Fall migration and the winter resident populations are by far my favorite times for photography, and this year, I’m hoping to really be able to spend some time with them getting some quality material.