The Martin Refuge (aka The Javelina)- The Origin of Nature Photography on Private Land

John and Audrey Martin are the pioneers of nature photography on private ranchland and through their vision; numerous landowners have opened up their ranches to photographers, for a fee of course. Still, there may be no better way to capitalize on the abundant species of birds, insects, mammals, and reptiles in South Texas than through access to private ranchland.

About 6+ years ago, John invited me to visit The Javelina, a 300-acre ranch located NW of Mission, Texas. John shared his vision of developing a professional photography tour similar to that of the PGA. Already the force behind the Valley Land Fund Photography Contest, John has realized his dream of a professional contest through his ICF Pro-Tour.

The Javelina has eight professionally designed photo blinds, each set back from small water holes and close to feeding areas. Three of the blinds have been sunken underground for photographing at eye level. For your safety and an enhanced photographic experience, your visit to the Javelina includes the services of a Certified Interpretive Guide who will meet you at the gate and spend the day helping you.

Compared to other private ranches, there a few amenities for the photographer. There is running water but no electricity and no lodge in which to escape the summertime heat. So this is something you will need to consider when planning your trip. If you are fine with the primitive accommodations, the photography is sure to be good.

Equipment: The ponds at the Javelina are closer to the blinds than others I have visited so a 400mm lens on a crop factor camera should be long enough at most of the blinds and in some cases, 300mm may suffice. As I have suggested before, a long telephoto (500-600mm) on one body and a high quality zoom on a second body is a good combination. You will need a long telephoto at the raptor blind as well as the windmill blind. I have one minor grievance with the windmill pond. It is too large and extends beyond the photographers shooting lane. The birds/mammals sometimes drink in an area that is not conducive to taking photos. On the positive side, there is one section at the windmill pond where pebbles have been placed in a shallow area and the songbirds enjoying bathing there. It’s a real sweet spot for photos. Take note, due to the size of the pond, 500mm is barely long enough for these shots. I had to keep a 1.4x converter on my 500 in order to get those pictures.

Below are a few photos taken from my one and only photo outing at The Javelina. Click on any of the images to see a higher resolution image.

For more information about shooting at The Javelina Ranch, you can contact Audrey or John Martin at 956-381-1264 or 956-330-2055 (cellular).

Blue Grosbeak. A summertime resident throughout Texas and other parts of the USA.

Painted Bunting. Summertime resident of Texas. The most striking colors you will ever see on a bird in the brush.

Javelina. Given the nickname "skunk pig" good whiff downwind and you'll know why.

Olive Sparrow. Known as the Texas sparrow, it is found only in the southernmost tip of the state and parts of coastal Mexico, drawing many birders/photographers to the area for a glimpse of one.

Painted Bunting. Those wet feathers remind me of an artist's brush.

Female Northern Cardinal.

Peek-a-boo. Unidentified snake that came in for a quick drink.

Campos Viejos-The Ultimate Hunter/Photographer Locale

Campos Viejos is located about 15 miles North of Rio Grande City, Texas and is the ultimate destination for someone interested in a combined hunting/photography experience. Owned and operated by Hardy Jackson and family, they offer some of the finest hunting (deer, dove, exotics) in the state. Additionally, the ranch also offers birding and photographic opportunities. Hardy and his father have been committed to developing the ranch as a premier hunting destination and if you visit the Campos Viejos homepage, you will see that there are some quality whitetail bucks roaming their property.

While I love to hunt, it is the photography opportunities at Campos Viejos that I want to share with you in this log. I have taken photos on the ranch about a half-dozen times over the past few years and I absolutely enjoy shooting there. The ranch is over 1,000 acres in size and Hardy has approximately 6 photo blinds overlooking dedicated ponds, including one raptor blind. Two of the blinds are very spacious and can fit 4-5 photographers comfortably. The others are one-man blinds that have been placed in dug-out pits to give the photographer a low-angle perspective.

The ranch is equipped with a lodge, complete with wide screen HDTV, wifi, and pool table. It’s a nice place to spend the hottest part of the day, downloading/editing the images photographed that day. In 2006, Hardy participated in the Valley Land Fund wildlife photo contest. Shooting entirely on his own ranch, Hardy was the First Grand Prize winner which is a testament not only of Hardy’s skills, but also of the abundance of bird, mammal, and reptile species that inhabit the ranch. Below are only a few of the images that I have captured at Campos Viejos. Click on any of the pictures for a higher-resolution image.

For additional images, and to setup a photographic safari at the Campos Viejos ranch, you can contact Hardy through the Campos Viejos homepage.

Crested Caracara. Sometimes referred to as the "Mexican Eagle" it is actually in the falcon family.

Northern Cardinal.

Common Ground Dove.

Bobcat. Active primarily during twilight hours. Your best bet of photographing these animals is at dusk from a blind overlooking a watering hole, particularly during the hot summer months.

Scaled Quail. Named for obvious reasons looking at it's breast feathers, it is also known as "Cottontop" and "Blue Quail".

Harris's Hawk. Capable of hunting alone, these hawks prefer to hunt in groups.

Equipment:  Like most South Texas ranches with photographic blinds, you will need a long telephoto lens for birds (500-600mm). However, these long focal lengths can present a problem when mammals appear and you’ll be left with the dilemma of taking a close portrait, or switching to a second lens.

The tight bobcat portrait above is an example of what I’m referring to. I had been shooting dove and quail with a 500mm lens when the bobcat suddenly appeared. At the time I had only one camera body and I knew I had to make a fast decision. I opted for the tight portrait rather than risk losing any shot by switching lenses. After I was convinced I had a good portrait, I quickly and quietly changed to my 70-200/2.8 lens. I had to shoot handheld and I was able to get some decent shots this way, but I preferred the portrait as I loved the trickle of water from the bobcat’s mouth.

I highly recommend a two-camera setup. One with the long telephoto and the other with a high quality zoom. If you are going to shoot with only one camera body, I think the ideal setup for this type of shooting is a high quality zoom on a crop-factor camera (e.g. Canon 7D and 100-400; Nikon D300s and 200-400/4).

That’s all for now folks and remember, spend some quality time with your kids outdoors, they’ll thank you for it someday…

Santa Clara Ranch-South Texas’ Premier Photography Destination

Looking for a great place to photograph in the brush country? The Santa Clara Ranch may just be South Texas’ finest ranch to do that very thing. Owned and operated by Dr. Beto Gutierrez, the Santa Clara is located about 9 miles West of McCook and is comprised of 300 acres of virgin habitat. By virgin habitat, I mean that this piece of South Texas has never seen the blade of a plow and that means you get to experience what South Texas was like in its earliest history.

Dr. Gutierrez is an award-winning photographer driven by a passion to develop the ranch as a premier photographic destination. I think it’s safe to say that he has more than accomplished that objective and may just have bragging rights to South Texas’ best photographic hotspot. The ranch has four sunken blinds, each overlooking its own pond, two dedicated morning blinds and two dedicated evening blinds.

Typical Blind Setup At Santa Clara Ranch

The blinds are very spacious and can fit four to five photographers comfortably. You may be able to notice in the image above that the lens is right at ground level. This produces some outstanding perspectives of the animals/birds being photographed.

Mexican Ground Squirrel

Greater Roadrunner

Javelina Baby Inspecting the Waterhole

Northern Bobwhite Quail

The action at the photo blinds is non-stop and you will need plenty of memory cards, particularly if you own one of the higher megapixel cameras on the market. For birds, a focal distance of 400mm on a crop-factor camera is probably a minimum focal length needed. If using a full frame camera then 500 or 600mm is ideal for birds.

You will want a zoom on a second body to photograph the larger mammals. Many photographers shoot with a fixed focal length mounted on their tripod and and then a versatile zoom such as the Canon 100-400mm or Nikon 70-300mm at the ready on a second camera. Many Nikon shooters often use the excellent 200-400/f4 lens on a crop factor camera as their primary lens and that zoom range offers excellent convenience in a one-camera setup that delivers outstanding results. If you do not own these lenses, don’t despair, my good friend Hector Astorga uses Sigma’s Bigma (50-500mm) on his Sony full-frame camera body and produces images typically exceeding the more expensive prime lenses. So, it’s not necessarily the equipment that matters as much as it is the photographer behind it.

All of the images in this post were taken with a Canon 1Ds MkII and a 500mm lens with the exception of the dueling javelinas. That image was taken handheld with a Canon 1D MkII and a 70-200/2.8 with 1.4x extender attached.


Dueling Javelinas

In addition to these fantastic blinds, Dr. Gutierrez has recently developed a two-tier raptor-blind so photographers have the choice of blue sky or green/brown backgrounds. The trees in the background are at a sufficient distance from the perch and this helps produce creamy-licious bokeh, making those raptors really pop in the image.

Harris' Hawk From Upper Raptor Blind

As if all of that wasn’t good enough, there is a plush four bedroom air-conditioned (a luxury you will more than welcome in the summer), two-bath home equipped with a full kitchen, washer/dryer, BBQ pit outdoors, and wi-fi so it really is a home away from home. In fact, it may be too comfortable, tempting you to stay in and relax but don’t do it, the action at the photo blinds is hotter than a South Texas summer, and that’s saying quite a lot.

Santa Clara will present you with opportunities to create unique, once-in-a-lifetime images. Whether you are visiting South Texas for the first time or are native to the area and simply looking for access to the private ranch lands, Santa Clara is a must-visit ranch.

For information on the Santa Clara Ranch you may contact Dr. Beto Gutierrez at: telephone (956)-787-6808 or email

So, until next time, remember to spend some quality time with your kids outdoors, they’ll thank you for it someday…