Migratory Fallout @ South Padre Island, Texas

About 10 days ago, an unexpected northern front blew through South Texas and with it came a massive fallout of migratory birds. To my misfortune, my Canon 7D was at Canon CPS for repair. Those who have shot with me in the past know that I always have two cameras but I had sold my 1Ds MarkII so that I could save up for a new full frame camera. Well, I still haven’t purchased a new one so when the fallout came, I was caught without a camera. This past weekend, another northern, though much less intense, pushed through the area. With my 7D back from repair, I drove to the South Padre Island Convention Center and was able to photograph the birds below. While this second fallout was nothing compared to the week before, I had a great time and some interesting experiences. The weather is warm now and these birds will soon be departing but they’ll be back another day…and I’ll be there with “two” cameras at the ready.

Until next time, keep shooting. –KEVIN

Where The Grass Is Greener Than You Might Think…

We’ve all seen inspirational photographs that give us a sense of awe about our natural world and leave us wishing that we could visit these exotic locales. The grass seems greener at these places and if we could only get there, we could photograph that beautiful landscape, colorful bird, majestic mammal, or rare courtship ritual ourselves. If only! But, life finds a way of rerouting our best laid photographic intentions and so we table our photography for another day. Let me tell you that each time you do that, you are missing out on the opportunity to create wonderful images. Sure, I’d like to visit Yellowstone, the Badlands, Redwood National Park, the Guadalupe Mountains, or simply spend more time on the private South Texas ranches I’ve written about on this blog. Believe me, those days will come and I will eventually photograph at all of these places and more. Today though, I’d like to continue with my series of articles on “places to photograph” and share a photographic hotspot that nearly every photographer overlooks….the back yard.

I know, that’s not quite as exotic as the Galapagos Islands but there are wonderful images to be had on your own “greener” pasture. Mine exists on a small lot in a suburban subdivision surrounded by a cedar fence, five trees, and routinely patrolled by four vigilant beagles. To date, I have documented 19 different species of birds, 4 mammals, and numerous flowers and insects that I have not kept track of. Last summer, my children were competing in a nature photography contest so I built a temporary pond using wooden pallets, sand, river rock, and of course a pond liner though I probably could have used a shower curtain and saved some money. I selected a few flowering plants as ground cover at a local garden center, stumps/perches I’d collected from ranches I had frequented in the past, then created my mini-landscape. The birds were instantly attracted to my mini-scape, the seed I placed in small piles, and the water. From that point on it was a hotbed of photographic activity. The images below were photographed by myself or my children (as noted in the copyright).

So, don’t despair when you find that obstacles keep preventing you from going outdoors, simply find a way to bring the outdoors to you and start making pictures. You’ll be amazed how green the grass can be on this side of the fence.

Until next time… –KEVIN

Lake Tahoe, Mono Lake, & Yosemite National Park – Galleries

Earlier last month my family and I traveled to Lake Tahoe, Nevada for a much anticipated summer vacation. I posted one of those pictures in an ImageSpotlight section of my blog and promised to follow-up with a gallery of images from that trip. Well, here are the images, along with some that were captured at Mono Lake and Yosemite National Park. Hey, we were only 3 hours away from one of our nation’s finest parks so we couldn’t pass up a day and a half exploring the area. I saw and photographed two of Yosemite’s icons and will be back another day, fully dedicating my time to photograph this awesome area.

All images were shot with a Canon 1DsMkII, 24-70/2.8, and/or 70-200/2.8. The Stellar Jay images were shot with a 1.4x added to the 70-200mm lens.  Enjoy the pics.

Until next time, get outdoors and keep shooting. — KEVIN

Feeling Blue And Loving It: A Day Among The Texas Hill Country Wildflowers

Bluebonnets On Willow City Loop. Canon 1DsMkII | 24-70/2.8 @35mm | f22 | 1/50 | ISO200.

I just returned from my first Texas Hill Country wildflower outing and did I have a blast. The timing of my trip would have normally been perfect but given the rains and mild winter, the 2012 blooms were peaking earlier than usual. For my outing, there were still plenty of good flowers and thanks to a few email exchanges with two of my friends (Bill Caskey, Jeannie Lewis) that live in the Austin area, I had a pretty good idea where I should visit. I also read people’s wildflower sightings online so between that and my trusted advice, I decided to begin my adventure from the city of Fredericksburg. From there I would photograph along Hwy 16 toward Willow City Loop, then up to the city of Llano. At Llano, I would take Hwy 71 to Kingsland, Ranch Roads 307/1431 up toward Buchanan Lake, then Hwy 29 back to Llano. Finally, I would make my way back to Fredericksburg, then go East to Lyndon B. Johnson state park to photograph the historic cabins among the wildflowers.

All of this, I would try to do in a single day. Yes, only one day. Could I do it? I would need cloud cover to photograph in the middle of the day and fortunately, I had it for a short while. So why only one day? Quite simply, that’s all the time I had as Sunday was Easter and a day I wanted to spend with my family. It was either now or next year and one day  is better than nothing so in the spirit of Willie Nelson…I was “On The Road Again.”

Bluebonnet-lined Country Road Near Llano Airport (Thanks to Luke Etheredge, a local ranch owner I met, who pointed me toward this location). Canon 1DsMkII | 24-70/2.8 @ 70mm | f11 | 1/125 | ISO 200. Because the sky was bland and grey, I composed this with the intention of cropping into a panoramic view.

I had three primary photographic objectives on this trip: 1) Big open bluebonnet fields with large hills/trees in the background, 2) Intimate pictures showing the wildflowers amidst their surroundings (natural and man-made),  and 3) Macro shots of individual flowers. I also had three secondary objectives: A) Scout the countryside for future photographic adventures, B) Capitalize on any serendipitous discoveries, and C) Avoid getting bit by a rattlesnake. Now, some of you may be wondering why “C” is not a primary objective and it essentially is, but it was not a primary photographic objective…semantics. 🙂 I was wearing my snake boots so I did take some precautions and for the record, I did not see any snakes on this trip. So how did I do on all of these objectives? Well, below is only a small sample of what I photographed so you tell me.

To capture Objective 1, I was trying to layer the photograph from foreground to background, i.e. having interesting subjects from front to back, creating depth in the picture. I was able to do some of that but in many places, either the background was uninteresting or the foreground flowers were sparse.

How I wish this field would have been full of bluebonnets along the Willow City Loop | Canon 1DsMkII | 17-35/2.8 @ 35mm | f/22 | 1/15 | ISO 200 | Graduated ND Filter.

Bluebonnet Meadow Near Fredericksburg. Canon 1DsMkII | 24-70/2.8 @ 70mm | f22 | ISO200.

Bluebonnets & Mesquite Trees Along Willow City Loop. Canon 1DsMkII | 24-70/2.8 @ 35mm | f16 | ISO 200.

Bluebonnets Among Mesquite Brush Near Llano. Canon 1DMkII | 70-200/2.8 @ 70mm | f16 | ISO 200.

Objective 2:  I was not finding many massive fields but still, the flowers were very nice so I turned my attention to more intimate images of the flowers in their surroundings (around plants, other flowers, trees, and man-made structures).

Bluebonnets And Yucca, Llano. Canon 1DMkII | 70-200/2.8 @ 70mm | f13 | 1/60 | ISO 200.

Ranch Gate Among Bluebonnets, Hwy 71 near Llano. Canon 1DMkII | 70-200/2.8 @150mm | f8 | 1/200 | ISO 200.

Roadside Bluebonnets Along Willow City Loop. Canon 1DMkII | 70-200/2.8 @ 70mm | f14 | 1/60 | ISO200.

Indian Paintbrush Among Bluebonnets and Stonewall, Hwy 71 Near Llano. Canon 1DsMkII | 24-70/2.8 @ 70mm | f10 | ISO 200.

Bluebonnets & Prickly Pear Cactus Along Willow City Loop. Canon 1DMkII | 70-200/2.8 @ 135mm | f13 | 1/40 | ISO 200.

Wildflower Mixture Along Willow City Loop. The symphony of colors along the fence-line caught my attention. Canon 1DMkII | 70-200/2.8 @ 80mm | f13 | ISO 200.

Indian Paintbrush & Bluebonnets. Canon 1DsMkII | 24-70/2.8 @ 70mm | f9 | ISO 200.

At mid-day, I used the cloud cover to focus on macro images of the flowers (Objective 3), adding a little fill flash to bring out some of the colors.

Texas Bluebonnet. Canon 1DMkII | 180mm macro | f8 | ISO 200.

Indian Paint Blanket Near Llano. Canon 1DMkII | 180mm | f7.1 | ISO 200. The colors really were that saturated and I contemplated removing some saturation in Photoshop but I left as is.

I ended the day at LBJ State Park near Johnson City. I knew they had these historic buildings on the premises and a phone call prior to the drive assured me that the flowers were great. I’m not sure what that ranger called great but the flowers were way past their prime here and the grass was way too tall. Oh well, I made the most of it but I’ll be back next year.

Historic Cabin At LBJ State Park. What an image this would have made with a full field of bluebonnets in the foreground. Canon 1DsMkII | 17-35/2.8 @ 17mm | f18 | ISO 200.

Historic Cabins At LBJ State Park. Canon 1DsMkII | 17-35/2.8 @ 32mm | f11 | ISO 200.

So how about the secondary objectives? Well, the fact that I’m sharing this blog post is a testament that I avoided the snakes. Throughout the drive I took note of places I’d like to go back and visit. As for the serendipitous moments, there were several. The fragrance of the bluebonnets was amazing and something that you’ll just have to experience for yourself. I met a really nice ranch owner, and his son, and he pointed me toward a really good place for a great photo. I enjoyed the historic town-square building in Llano. While I was photographing that building, I could hear violin music, which is when I noticed that a “Fiddle Festival” was underway. Well what’s a guy to do? I popped in for about 30 minutes and enjoyed the festivities…and the A/C wasn’t bad either. Connecting with my country roots, I found a fantastic BBQ spot that served up a mean Peach Pie Ala Mode. What a day I was having! Oh I almost forgot, I saw two full-moons at mid-morning…but that’s another story. 😉

Town Square At Llano. Canon 1DsMkII | 17-35/2.8 @ 17mm | f16 | ISO 200.

If you’ve never been to the Texas Hill Country when the wildflowers are blooming, you owe yourself a drive. Until next time, keep shooting. –KEVIN

OMG! What A Raptor Blind.

Those of you who have been following my blog have been enjoying a series of “where-to” articles on some of the Valley’s Photo Hot Spots, both private and public. I recently had the pleasure of returning to The Martin Refuge to spend a morning at their raptor blind. For the earlier review I wrote on the Martin Refuge, see my August 2011 archive.

I was joined by two good shooting friends, Hector Astorga and Dr. Beto Gutierrez. We met fellow photography friend and Martin Refuge guide, Patty Raney, at the ranch gate at 7:30am. After a few minutes chatting, we setup our gear in the blind, set out some chicken quarters and waited. Two very inquisitive roadrunners provided us with some great photo opportunities and a little entertainment (more on them later).

It didn’t take long for the first Crested Caracara to arrive and once the first one landed, at least a dozen more flew in, landed, flew away, constantly repeating this process over the next 3 hours. While 3-4 were feasting on the ground, a couple more were perched, and others were circling, waiting to land on the occupied perches. This started at approximately 8:00am and the action was non-stop until we decided to call it a morning at about 11:00am. Although the Caracara were still there when we left, the light had become harsh and our group had plans to shoot at the Santa Clara in the afternoon.

Crested Caracara. Canon 1DsMkII, 500/4.5

Crested Caracara. Canon 1DsMkII, 500/4.5

Crested Caracara. Canon 1DsMkII, 500/4.5

Back to the roadrunners, at one point there were probably 12 Caracara on the ground and apparently these two roadrunners were none to pleased with the idea that their territory was being invaded. They fluffed their feathers, flapped their beaks profusely and did their best to stare down these intruders, often successfully (if only temporarily) chasing them away. It was quite comical.

The Standoff.

Greater Roadrunner. Canon 1DsMkII, 500/4.5.

While we mostly saw Caracara, we were also able to photograph Harris’ Hawk. I’ve done a lot of shooting on some of the Valley’s best ranches and I have to give credit where it is due. This was by far the best raptor experience I have ever had. The Martin Refuge has a gem of a raptor blind. For those interested in photographing Crested Caracara and Harris’ Hawk, contact Patty Raney at 956-330-5316 (cellular). Below is a sample of more images from the morning’s action at the Martin Refuge Raptor Blind…OMG!

Crested Caracara. 1DsMkII, 500/4.5

Crested Caracara Banking In For Landing. Canon 1DsMkII, 500/4.5

Crested Caracara, Canon 1DsMkII, 500/4.5

Crested Caracara, Canon 1DsMkII, 500/4.5

Crested Caracara, Canon 1DsMkII, 500/4.5

Harris' Hawk. Canon 1DsMkII, 500/4.5

Estero LLano Grande State Park

Park Headquarters

The state park at Estero Llano Grande is a 230-acre refuge centrally located in the Rio Grande Valley within the city limits of Weslaco. It is a large wetland environment with numerous lakes, woodlands, and thorn forest. There are many trails and boardwalks that offer excellent morning and afternoon photo opportunities.

View from deck at park headquarters.

Brick Paved Trail. Don't overlook the photo opportunities that abound here. Look for nesting dove, screech owl, butterflies, squirrel and more.

Waders, waterfowl, and shorebirds such as the Green Heron,

Spoonbill Trail and boardwalk leading to Avocet Pond.

Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Least Grebe, Black-Necked Stilt, Great Egrets and more frequently visit the park’s waterways. You’ll see different species in summer and winter so it’s a park that you should visit throughout the year. You can also see valley specialties such as the Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Altamira Oriole, Groove-billed Ani, White-tipped Dove, and Chachalaca at the park. Many will be tempted to take a photo while standing on the boardwalk. While there’s nothing wrong with that, to get really impressive images of birds on the various lakes, try shooting from the prone position anywhere along the boardwalks.

Northern Shoveler. Referred to as spoonbills because of the unique shape of their bill, they winter here in the Valley and all along the Southern US Border.

Least Sandpiper. Spends the winter along the Southern US border. It is the smallest shorebird in the world.

Great Egret Backlit By Morning Sun

White-winged Dove & Young In Nest

It may be part of the world birding center network, but there are also reptiles (e.g. snakes, alligators), insects (e.g. butterfly, grasshopper, spider), and mammals (e.g. rabbit, squirrel, bobcat, javelina) to be photographed on the premises. The appropriately named Alligator Lake has several large inhabitants that range from 8 to 12 feet in length and they have had babies so who knows how many alligators live there. The lake is very large so seeing them is no guarantee. I’ve visited the lake about a half dozen times, seen alligators on 3 occasions and only once had one close enough for a good photograph. It’s still worth going to the pond as there is a perch where water birds such as the Neotropic Cormorants can be photographed in beautiful late afternoon light. Along the trail toward Alligator Lake, one can often spot the Common Paraque but you’ll have to keep your eyes open as they are well camouflaged.

American Alligator North of Boardwalk

Neotropic Cormorant at Alligator Lake. Found primarily along Texas Coast, Louisiana, and New Mexico's Rio Grande Valley (yes, they have one too).

Cottontail Rabbit On Trail To Alligator Lake

Common Pauraque. Most active at night, you may have seen these birds if you've ever driven down a ranch road after dark.

Blooming Yucca. Commonly referred to as the Spanish Dagger so be careful around those leaf tips.

CAUTION: The trail along Alligator Lake is close to the water’s edge so stay alert. If pets (should be on leash) or children are accompanying you, keep them close by. There has never been an incident on the trail and the likelihood is really minimal, but it’s always best to err on the side of caution.

EQUIPMENT: Whenever you are after birds, long lens is the key and the longer the better. So at a minimum you’ll want a 500mm lens and it may be best to have it mounted on a crop factor camera. A 400mm may work but when it comes to birds, you can never have enough focal length. Carry your teleconverter with you. Given the diversity of wildlife and habitat, you will have the opportunity to do some wide-angle scenics or even macro work. So what you carry in the field really depends on your photographic objectives, whether that be birds, mammals, insects, landcapes, plant-life or some combination thereof. If you do not have a 500mm lens, you can still capture wonderful images so get out there and get creative. You’ll have a great time.

RECENT REPORTS:

  • Bobcat exist on the property and have been sighted near the park headquarters and along the brick walkway. Sadly, park rangers report that three were struck by cars on FM 1015 this past Spring.
  • Javelina have been sighted infrequently along Green Jay trail.
  • Look for screech owl in the crevice of trees along the brick walkway and Barn Owl near the feeders in the Tropical Area.
  • Hummingbirds are active by the park headquarters. During migration, look for the Black-chinned and Ruby-throated hummingbirds, along with the native Buff-bellied.
  • If you are visiting the park for the first time, take the electric tram nature tour. It lasts about 45 minutes but you will see the entire park and then you can make your plan of action depending upon your shooting preferences.

I have not taken full advantage of the many photo opportunities at Estero Llano Grande but having done this review, I’ve found a new desire to get back out there to see what I can record. I hope to see some of you there.

Until then, may all your images be tack sharp… – Kevin

South Padre Island-World Birding Center

SPI-WBC Headquarters.

The past three where to photograph articles I have written have been about places to shoot on private ranchland. While I believe photographing on private land is the best way to capitalize on capturing the variety of birds and mammals found in South Texas, I also recognize that it’s not in everybody’s budget or desire to do so. Therefore, in a continuation of my series of places to photograph, I’m going to write about some of the public places I often frequent with a camera and share some of the best ways to maximize your time at these locales.

View from tower overlooking Blinds 1, 2, 3, and part of 4. This is overlooking the saltwater intake from the laguna madre.

View from tower of Blinds 5 and 6. You can drive your vehicle on the flats in the distance and get some great sunsets.

View of boardwalk at SPI-WBC.

The South Padre Island World Birding Center is located adjacent to the SPI convention center. It contains over 4800 linear feet of boardwalks and 7 bird blinds. Numerous shorebirds can be easily photographed at the center. Some of the most common birds you will find there include the Great Blue Heron, White Ibis, Black-necked Stilt, Tri-Colored Heron, Royal Tern, Seagulls, Roseate Spoonbill, Least Bittern, Reddish Egret, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Killdeer, and Snowy Egret. This list is not exhaustive.

Great Blue Heron. The largest heron of North America. Talk about biting off more than you can chew, the GBH has been known to choke to death on prey that is too large.

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck. Sometimes called the black-bellied tree-duck because they like to perch and nest in trees.

White Ibis. These birds help the fish population by eating crabs and crayfish.

Roseate Spoonbill. In the USA, these birds are found along the coast of Texas, Louisiana, and southern tip of Florida. Look for them along mangroves, saltwater lagoons, and large, shallow lakes.

In addition to the abundant species of birds, this is also a good location to photograph the American Alligator. No your eyes did not deceive you, I wrote alligator. But alligators are fresh-water reptiles and the coast is obviously salt-water so what gives? Well, the SPI birding center has both a large fresh-water lake that is served from the city’s water supply, and a salt-water inlet fed from the Laguna Madre so you get the best of both worlds here. Alligators can tolerate brackish water so they are doing just fine in this environment.

American Alligator At Sunrise.

There are three alligators living on the property and one is generally very predictably seen at Blind #7. The alligator will often swim right up to you. Don’t worry, it’s actually right beneath you from the boardwalk so you’re quite safe…just don’t fall in. Feeding is prohibited but there it sits, waiting for a meal, which I believe it thinks is you. It will slowly sink to the bottom and wait underneath the water, rising slowly after a few minutes. It’s an amazing reptile and an awesome creature to photograph but it is primarily a morning blind so you’ll have to wake up early to capture the gator in nice light. Afternoon shots can still be had but you’ll need a little luck on your side and hope the gator cooperates with where it decides to swim. It prefers to rest on the west bank and that would mean shooting into the sun and a loss of contrast, color, or both, in the evening.

American Alligator.

From Blind #6 you can often see gulls and terns skimming the water. It’s a great location to photograph them in flight. While you are there, don’t forget to keep your eyes on the cattails. There are plenty of least bittern and sometimes red-winged blackbirds too.

Laughing Gull. Skimming the water.

Laughing Gull.

Finally, if you are there in the evening, you are sure to see and photograph some amazing sunsets. You can shoot from either blind #3 or #4 and capture the sun on the water, perhaps a boat or two in the image. I recommend you also shoot from a location on the boardwalk where you can incorporate Blind #3 or #4 into the picture. Immediately North of the convention center, you can drive your car right up to the water and photograph the sunset from there. There are often people canoeing the laguna madre so try to incorporate that into your pictures too as this adds an interesting element to the photograph.

Canoeist Paddling The Laguna Madre At Sunset.

Sunset Over The Laguna Madre.

Laguna Madre Sunset. View from the boardwalk at the SPI-WBC.

Other places on South Padre Island and Port Isabel: If you drive as far North as the road allows, there are wonderful sand dunes that you can try to photograph. If you go to Access #5, you can drive your vehicle onto the beach. It’s a great place to photograph the sunrise. Finally, don’t forget about Port Isabel. The shrimp boats go in and out of the channel and if you get lucky, you might photograph them coming in/going out. I think it’s more of a sunset shot given the direction of light. At the very least, you should be able to photograph them while docked. Brown Pelican are often perched on posts on the Port Isabel side, but I haven’t found a good location from which to photograph them. If you know of any, send me a message.

Moonrise over sanddunes at South Padre Island, Texas.

Sunrise On The Gulf Of Mexico.

Port Isabel Lighthouse. Constructed in 1852 to make seagoing along the Texas coast less dangerous, it is the only lighthouse of the original 16 constructed in Texas that is open to the public.

Shrimp Boats At Dock.

During the month of April to about mid-May, the convention center is a prime spot to photograph migratory birds flying to northern nesting grounds. A few examples of what you’ll find are indigo bunting, lazuli bunting, scarlet tanager, chestnut sided warblers, baltimore oriole and more. There are plenty of birds…but plenty of photographers and birders there too so you’ll have to jockey for position but it’s worth the trip to photograph these amazing birds.

Indigo Bunting.

Summer Tanager.

Baltimore Oriole.

Equipment:  You’ll want your longest focal length. I’m often using the 500mm on a crop-factor camera. You may want to carry your best bird-in-flight lens on your shoulder to capture that action but long lens is the name of the game here for birds. If you are after sunsets, a wide angle or 70-200 lens will be just about right but the 500 will also work wonders as the sunset will be larger in the image. Caution: Do NOT look through your viewfinder at the sun as this will cause damage to your eye. If you have live view, then put your camera in that mode and compose the shot. Otherwise, meter the sky adjacent to the sun, set your camera on manual mode with the metered settings, then recompose quickly and fire away.

UPDATE: I was at the SPI birding center in July 2011 and there are a couple of negative things to report. First, the freshwater is getting overgrown with cattails. You can still get great images, but the cattails have taken over and in short time will only get worse. Second, the boardwalk connecting the birding center and convention center now has a big gap which made no sense to me. I used to park at the convention center and walk to Blind #7 in the morning to photograph the alligator. At present, you’ll have to park at the birding center headquarters and walk at least 4000 of the 4800 linear feet to get there. I may be exaggerating a bit but it’s a long walk with heavy equipment. I visited with the center staff one morning and in short, the gap in the boardwalk has to do with a political battle between the city and the county. No telling how or when that is resolved. They did acknowledge the cattail problem and they stated that during the fall, they had plans to weed them out. If they follow through with those plans, the photography will get much better so here’s hoping they do.

That’s all for now folks. Remember to spend time with your kids outdoors. I did that very thing at the birding center this past July and they had a great time…but not as great a time as their dad.