When you live in south Texas, you get used to hot, dry weather. Well, you don’t get used to it, but you learn to live with it. This spring has been as hot, dry and windy as most of us can remember…the brush has dropped its leaves to conserve moisture and the animals have all gathered at the waterholes. So, I wait at the ponds to get in on the action.
Two weeks ago at Steve Bentsen’s “Dos Venadas Ranch”, I had a splendid afternoon of shooting from one of photo blinds. I totally missed an opportunity to photograph an armadillo bathing (rolling onto his back like a puppy)… I had forgotten to turn on my backup camera with the smaller lens. By the time I got ready, the ‘dillo was out of the pond and headed for cover. I did get my act together by the time the birds began arriving.
Last week, I was at Beto Gutierrez’s “Santa Clara Ranch” with two clients for three days of shooting. A bit of good luck came our way in the form of a stray thunder shower that deposited about .1″ of rain in that part of the brush country. It was enough to make the cenizo brush explode into purple blooms. All I needed to do was place a few blooming branches around the pond for color.
Don’t forget to click on the upper right or left portion of the photos to enlarge them for a sharper, brighter view.
I always try to have a second camera with my 100-400 mm lens attached and ready while I’m sitting in a photography blind. I am usually photographing birds with the big lens, but when a mammal drops by, the zoom lens is the right choice.
Cenizo is a common brush species in south Texas. It has gray, ash-colored leaves and purple flowers. Hence, it is called “cenizo”, Spanish for ash-colored.
In my book, snakes are always difficult to photograph, so a sprinkle of purple cenizo blooms around the pond was a big help as this small western coachwhip came to drink.
One of the greatest thrills I get from photographing birds is seeing the flight photos that can be obtained by working close to an active waterhole on a hot day. I watch the direction most birds are going when they finish drinking and set up the next shot to anticipate the bird heading in that direction. Then, I just pull back on the telephoto power, read the bird’s body language to anticipate take-off, and try to commence shooting a burst of high-speed shots as the bird leaves the pond. It certainly worked on the photos you are seeing here. Several scissor-tailed flycatchers came in to drink on this afternoon. The strong spring winds made it a little easier than normal to capture the birds on take-off.
I hope to capture painted buntings coming and going over the next few days. Wish me luck.
April 20 is always close to being the peak of the spring songbird migration through south Texas. Unfortunately, this spring a constant, southerly wind carried most of the birds right on over us. It was last week, early May, before a “fallout” finally occurred at South Padre Island. It was a little late to see great numbers of birds, but three days of brisk north wind forced a nice diversity of birds to seek refuge on the island. It was a wonderful photography event!
Here are some of the beauties that flew to my lens last week:
Click on the photos to make them open in a larger, sharper format.
I saw more redstarts at South Padre Island last week than in the past ten years combined.
Most of these photos were taken with the Canon 7D camera (set for high speed shutter action…8 frames/second), a 500 mm IS lens, 1.4X teleconverter, ISO between 400-1,000 depending on the light, while maintaining something close to 1/2,000 second shutter speed @ f 5.6 – f 11. Most of the time, I was using fill flash with a Better Beamer attached. I almost always shoot with flash power reduced – 2 2/3 f stops from full power. For shooting songbirds, I recommend using a 25 mm extension tube between the lens and camera to allow extra close focusing. Mine was on the blink last week, but a good cleaning revived it. *One of the pins was sticking and couldn’t spring into normal alignment as the extension tube was attached to the lens. Remember that when yours decides to fail.
I saw a flock of Dickcissels arrive as I was getting my gear unpacked for an afternoon shoot. They were so tired I was able to move in for a close-up before they whirled away.
Magnolia Warblers in spring plumage have always been my favorite. Their contrasting yellow and black plumage and black necklace are striking. This bird returned to the thistle plant on several occasions and even hovered long enough for this photo.
Each time this male ruby-throated hummingbird came in, I blazed away, trying to capture that incredible throat at a good sun angle to bring out the irridescent red. Just before the sun set, I got the shot.
Two days later, Steve Bentsen and I spent a morning on his ranch trying to call birds with another friend, Richard Moore. A little after sunrise, we got this Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. The rest of our trip was a dry run, so assumed that the extremely dry weather is causing many species to delay breeding.
I am thankful for that one “fallout” this spring and for having the chance to photograph it. It is a thrill to share the experience with others who appreciate nature’s beauty.
April was a busy month for me. First, I helped conduct some workshops at FeatherFest/PhotoFest in Galveston. Then, I guided other photographers on one of the south Texas photo ranches. After that, I went to South Padre Island and the Ozona, Texas area to lead photo tours and workshops. Then the month ended with a media event at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. The Cincinnati Zoo education team brought an ocelot by the refuge for a few minutes and allowed us to photograph it. So, the hectic month ended on a high note.
April was unlike those of most other years. While the rest of the country was getting blasted with powerful weather systems, Texas was toasty and extremely dry. One of our favorite bird events, a migration “fallout” of songbirds at South Padre Island didn’t happen because the cool fronts just weren’t reaching us. The weather man promises a good cold front next week, so you know where I will be Monday morning (if the Lord is willing and the creek don’t rise)… South Padre Island!
Next week, I hope to get busy preparing a photo tour schedule for the coming fall, winter and spring, so keep watching this web site.
Here is a good sampling of the photos I got from all those April trips:
Remember to click on the photo to see an enlarged and sharper version. You can advance through the photos by clicking in the upper right portion of each photo.
I captured the stilt photo while lying in wet sand and shooting from a bean bag on a frisbee. In the spring, I always try to have my wading shoes, bathing suit and an old t-shirt for low-crawling in the sand to get these eye-level views.
In the photo above, the bird is angling away from the photographer, but it best shows what a great blue heron can do with that sharp, powerful beak.
I cloned away some screws along the top of the sign. They were connected with monofilament line to discourage perching birds, but they weren’t working.
My last photos in April were of this female ocelot (below) posing on a mesquite branch at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.
I hope you enjoyed this little look into my busy spring. It was a lot of fun. Thanks to all of you who were a part of it.
April has been a busy one. I just got back from doing several workshops at FeatherFest in Galveston, then I spent three days guiding on the Santa Clara Ranch, and next week I’m off to South Padre Island for a spring migrant birds instructional photo tour. Immediately after that workshop, I will be leading a workshop on the Hoak Ranch near Ozona, Texas.
The Caddo Lake Instructional Photo Tour had to be cancelled for this spring…just not enough participants. It has always been the most productive and fun of all the photo trips I lead, so it was especially difficult having to pull the plug. If you have been wanting to do that one, set aside some vacation time for the first week of May 2012.
For those of you who shoot with Nikon equipment, I know of a couple of great lens buys. Contact Sherry ( firstname.lastname@example.org ). She has a Nikon 300 mm f4 and a Sigma 50-500 mm zoom, both less than a year old (the Sigma is only 2 months old) and like new. The lenses are excellent but her husband surprised her with a new Nikon 400 mm f2.8 just a few days ago, so she is eager to sell the other telephotos.
Here are some shots captured on recent trips. The mud dauber photos were lots of fun because I got into the macro world of bees and wasps for a couple of hours (it was a slow day in the bird blind).
Click in the upper right portion of the photo to enlarge if for a larger, sharper view and to move on to the next photo.
I got this shot with the 300 mm lens, 1.4 X teleconverter and 25 mm extension tube. To stop the motion, used the following settings: ISO 1250, 1/2000 sec. @ f10 with the Canon 7D camera. Of course, this is really a high speed, multi-flash type shot that should be done at f 22, but I made do with what I had.
It usually takes 10-20 trys to get a good take off shot of birds at the water hole, but the reward is great when it all comes together. I shot this one with the Canon 1D Mark III and Canon 100-400 mm lens at 400 mm setting, 1/3200 sec. @ f 5.6 with the ISO set at 500.
This male common yellowthroat was very nervous, but eventually got a bath. He is one of the early migrant songbirds to reach the Santa Clara Ranch this spring.
Grooming is always tiring, so one should stretch out an relax after such hard work.
I had to hunt long and hard this spring for a guayacan bush with blooms that might make a good perch for bird portraits. The Audubon’s orioles have temporarily altered their winter routine and begun nest building.
During the South Padre Island Photo Tour, we plan to get eye-to-eye with the Laguna Madre beach terns, shorebirds, and gulls. These breeding terns were captured with the Canon 1D Mark III and 500 mm IS lens atop a bean bag cradled in a frisbee. I got a little damp on the underside, but it was fun. Nevertheless, an 80″ plastic body-skid for beach photography would be nice.
Last week, McAllen hosted the North American Nature Photography Association’s annual Summit. It was a great opportunity to learn more about photography and to see the work of some great photographers. It’s funny though, that those of us who live here think we do a great job of advertising the photo opportunities and birding in south Texas. To my surprise, many of our visitors said they had never heard of McAllen or its bird resource. Of course, I wasn’t surprised that those who attended the Summit had a lot of fun; many even allowed a few extra days for photography. On Monday, I guided two ladies for a one-day trip to the Santa Clara Ranch. Sandy Richards of Alamo, California said “it was the best day of photography I ever had!”.
The following day, Dave Welling, Allen Dale and I headed up river about 120 miles in search of the elusive white-collared seedeater. Allen had photographed them about 5 days earlier and got some pretty nice photos. But for Dave and me, they are still “elusive”. Enough said! Allen saved the day by taking us to Falcon State Park where we photographed scaled quail and a pair of roadrunners building a nest. I can’t wait to visit that location again next month.
Yesterday, I spent a couple hours at the Edinburg Scenic Wetlands hoping for photographs of green kingfisher. Ditto on the “elusive” part, but the duck photography was great. With the migration under way, I hope to get back there soon.
Here are some of the birds I photographed this week. You will note that I added a flowery prop to one set to punch up the color. I simply placed the flowers in a location where I wanted the birds to land, placed a perch twig behind the flowers, and put half of an orange (out of sight) at the bottom of the perch. Several birds fought over the orange and the activity was intense all morning.
Remember, click on the photo and it will open to a larger, sharper format. Then you can click the upper righthand area to advance through the photos.
The shots with pink flowers are all at the same setup. The flowers are bouganvillas. I used the 100-400 mm zoom lens to allow room for capturing landing birds through a rapid fire sequence of shots. In a wetter spring, there would be enough native flowering plants to color up the background without hauling my wife’s potted plants to the ranch.
One could manipulate the green jay’s eye and insert a clear one to create a prettier photo, but the nictitating membrane shows that birds blink like we do when threatened by the striking beak of another bird.
When a bird lands on my setup, I often keep focused for several seconds in case some interesting action or posturing occurs. In this case, the wings spread as the thrasher turned to face me.
Desert birds, and probably most others, can be trained quickly to take their water from man-made devices. In this case, a camper at Falcon State Park simply overturned an unused trash can and filled the bottom with water for the birds. You may know scaled quail as blue quail and cotton-tops.
This greater roadrunner wasn’t much help with the nest building. While its mate gathered and installed sticks, this one pecked around at the light stuff but never did much real work. This is what I look like when there is housework to be done.
Several blue-winged teal are spending a few days at the Edinburg Scenic Wetlands. I got this shot using a 500 mm lens and 1.4X teleconverter with the Canon 7D camera set to ISO 800, 1/2000 second @ f 4 in early morning cross-light.
These whistling ducks were easy to approach for a sunrise shot at the Edinburg Scenic Wetlands. The wetlands are an excellent place for waterbird and butterfly photography, especially for local photographers who don’t have the time for a long drive to other habitats.
That’s it for this week. I hope all of you are enjoying good spring weather.
Spring wasn’t slow arriving in south Texas…one week we were in the 30s and the next week temperatures shot all the way up into the mid-90s. Green leaves are popping out all over the place. All this warmth reminds me it is Photo Tour/Workshop season again. Next week, the North American Nature Photography Association will hold their annual Summit in McAllen and several of us locals will be leading short photo trips. In April, I will be doing workshops at FeatherFest in Galveston, then I’ll scoot back to south Texas for a Photo Tour on South Padre Island as migrating songbirds are arriving. Right after that, I will drive out west for the Hoak Ranch near Ozona, Texas. Then, it’s on to Caddo Lake in east Texas the first week of May.
Just to remind you of what you are missing, several photos from South Padre Island and Caddo Lake follow this little discussion. There is still plenty of room for South Padre Island and a spot or two remain open for Caddo Lake. That one may fill before the weekend is over, so zip me a note if you have been meaning to register. The FeatherFest workshops are full as is the Hoak Ranch Workshop. Nevertheless, you should let me know if you want to be on the waiting list. Someone could drop out at the last minute.
Remember to click on the upper right portion of a photo to open it in a larger, sharper format. From there, just keep clicking along to see all the photos as a slide show.
Black-bellied Plovers and Ruddy Turnstones will be moulting into their breeding plumage as they prepare to head north from South Padre in April and early May.
We will spend at least one day of the South Padre Island Photo Tour photographing along the shoreline and from the World Birding Center boardwalk.
The Caddo Lake Photo Tour is by pontoon boat which can quitely cover hundreds of acres during each of our 5 outings. The first bird we photographed last year was the Cedar Waxwing. The trip is timed to coincide with the arrival of north-bound migrating songbirds and the early part of their breeding activity.
Come on now; don’t sleep through this opportunity. Register for one of these workshops today and enjoy some great spring nature photography.
My wife and I spent last week trying to stay warm while visiting her mother in Wichita Falls, Texas. Being the tough guy that I am, I spent all day Wednesday photographing from Dottie’s garage with the door open, no heat, and facing into that cold north wind. About 2″ of snow fell the night before and the temperature hovered around 20 degrees all day…the wind chill was around 10 degrees. On the brighter side, a good variety of birds were foraging about her neighborhood for any available food. I pitched out some sunflower seeds and bread crumbs and the birds responded. So, here is what you can get after a snow in north Texas (if you can bear the cold).
Click on the photo to make it expand and sharpen for better viewing. Click in the upper right portion of the photo to advance to the next shot.
I found these prairie dogs (one is peaking out of the burrow) the day before the snow as they enjoyed the sunshine on a blustery, 30 degree day. The “dogs” must have sensed that the following day would bring a blanket of snow, so they were quite active.
This blue jay photo was my very first shot of the morning. When I checked the camera’s screen, I knew it would be a good day.
Dark-eyed Juncos seemed to be the most common birds visiting Wichita Falls during the cold spell. These birds spend their summers in Canada and the northern U.S. and come our way when winter weather drives them south.
The rough bark on a cedar elm just outside the garage door must have been prime habitat for many forms of invertebrates because several species of birds, including this Downy Woodpecker and a Red-breasted Nuthatch, spent hours feeding in it.
Last week, north Texas was like a frozen tundra. Thousands of birds were working the woodlots and backyards looking for food and shelter.
The snow made a perfect backdrop for bird photography. The blue areas in the background are tree shadows falling on the snow.
Birds frequently perched on this fence which had some dried vines hanging on it. It was a perfect set and I didn’t have to do a thing to improve it. Finding nice perches to do impromptu bird photography in a tidy urban setting isn’t easy, so I was lucky .
Three years ago, my father-in-law dragged this old stump to the back yard fence and left it. Lucky for me, he never got around to putting it in the alley for removal, so it had weathered nicely and made an excellent feeding station and bird perch.
These photos were taken with the Canon 7D camera and 500 mm IS lens. A 1.4 X teleconverter was inserted for the small birds, but the prime lens was all I needed for the cardinals, starlings and blue jays. Most of the shots were taken at ISO 400 or 500, usually at 1/1600 second or better, and +2/3 of an f stop to compensate for the white background.
*** It is time to plan your next photo tour for this spring, so take a minute to a look at the tour schedule on this web site. The Hoak Ranch Workshop near Ozona still has some openings as do the Caddo Lake and South Padre Island photo tours. Each is in a scenic location where you can get some beautiful photographs while learning new tricks to improve your nature photography (scenic and wildlife) and Photoshoping.
I made 6 trips for whooping cranes this month and had sunlight two mornings. The birds were always there, but the warm light of sunrise was missing. Those of you who were with me know what a big difference that made in bird activity and photo quality.
All of our time during the whooping crane trips was dedicated to bird photography. That was a departure from the norm, as we usually work on landscapes around the harbors and fishing piers in the afternoons. Frankly, I missed shooting the colorful boats, harbor reflections and fog that can produce wonderful shots, but the weather kept us from getting the landscape opportunities we wanted.
I made a morning trip out to South Padre Island in late January and happily encountered a light morning fog and very little wind. The birds were there in good variety although ducks numbers were lower than usual. I’ve incorporated some of those shots with photos from our last whooping crane trip to give you a summary of my late January outings.
Click on a photo to make it larger and produce a sharper image for better viewing. There is a hidden “next” button in the upper, right hand area of each photo, too.
The whooping crane above was returning to its mate and young after chasing away another pair that had ventured too closely to this bird’s winter feeding territory.
All the whooping cranes photos were taken with a Canon 7D camera, 500 mm IS lens and 1.4X teleconverter mounted on a Gitzo 1358 tripod with Wimberley head. They were shot from a boat with the engine turned off. Even though temperatures were relatively cold, heat waves made it impossible to photograph the cranes after 10:00 AM on sunny mornings when the focus distance was more than about 120 feet.
I can read body language in many birds and I can anticipate when they are going to stretch, fly or just go to sleep. Nevertheless, it is always hard for me to “pull back” or reduce the telephoto power in order to capture those long wings when a bird stretches. On this occasion, however, I did manage to alert the workshop group and remove the teleconverter from my lens in time to capture this wonderful pose of an American oystercatcher. Oystercatchers are almost always located and photographed during the whooping crane trips.
The whooping cranes vocalized more this year than usual, and we had more roseate spoonbills than in any of the six years I’ve been leading these trips.
Since the water around the goldeneye was somewhat flat and uninteresting, I added a filter from Photoshop (I forgot which one). Whatever it was, I think the shot is better with the special effect.
The brown pelican above was photographed with a Canon 1D Mark III camera and 16-35 mm Canon lens, hand held from about 8 feet.
Perching water birds are a disaster for the handrails at the South Padre Island Birding Center. Hand cleaner is always in my equipment bag.
Sunrise at the South Padre Island boardwalk is usually productive. Many birds roost nearby or perch on the handrails to warm in the morning light. It takes me 90 minutes to drive there from McAllen, but I am seldom disappointed.
Two weeks ago, a photographer, scheduled to attend the Rockport Whooping Crane Photo Tour the following week, emailed to say she thought it would be best to cancel since rain was forecast for those days. I looked again at the 10 day forecast and was reassured that both days were predicted to be sunny with a high each day of 57 degrees. With that information in hand, I convinced her to come on down. The rain wasn’t scheduled to start until after the photo tour.
Well, the forecasters were off just a bit…we had highs of 42 and 39 degrees for the photo tour with hard north winds. But, hey, it didn’t rain! The cranes were abundant and active, but those poor photographers suffered every minute they were on deck. The bitter cold certainly took a lot of the fun out of that trip. A windy 40 degrees at Rockport is like a dry 15 degrees at Bosque del Apache, N.M..
After photographing cranes in the mornings, we worked other habitats for ducks, herons and songbirds in the afternoons. Still, it was mighty tough shooting with the cold wind and heavy clouds blocking most of the light. Some sample photos are included here, just to let you know it’s a great place to photograph in the winter, even when it’s cold.
Click on the photos to open them in a larger and sharper format. You can also view them in order by clicking on “next” in the upper right corner.
That rusty colored bird in the middle is a young of the year. It will lose most of those reddish brown feathers by spring.
With the wind and heavy cloud cover, we had to shoot with high ISO settings (ISO 800-1200) most of the time. On a positive note, that gave us a reason to discuss “noise reduction” in Photoshop and how to sharpen after smoothing out the noise in digital photos.
The whooping crane shots were taken with a Canon 7D camera, Canon 500 mm IS lens, 1.4 X teleconverter (except the two close-up shots), Gitzo cf tripod and Wimberley head. I tried to keep a high shutter speed (1/2,000 second when possible) on all occasions since the wind was strong and the light was limited.
This great blue heron appeared to be in breeding plumage when I photographed it wading about a hidden pond at Port Aransas. There was no time to remove the teleconverter when I got this shot, so I missed the full reflection. That happens when one is working warblers and herons at the same location.
I will be doing a photo talk the first Wednesday night of February at the La Posada Hotel in Laredo for their second annual birding festival. Then, I’ll be in Galveston for Featherfest the first week of April to do several workshops and tours. Read about it and sign up at : http://www.galvestonfeatherfest.com/PhotoFest_Descriptions.php
I spent three days in Port Aransas last week photographing whooping cranes, songbirds, waterfowl and water birds. The first day dawned a beautiful red to gold to yellow morning and then turned to clouds which persisted for most of the trip. Nevertheless, it is hard to fail when photographing in the Port Aransas and Rockport area. Never mind that we bypassed the marinas on foggy mornings (one of my favorites shoots), we still had plenty of subjects. I will have groups in that area again this week and next, so January promises to be lots of fun.
Here are some of my favorite photos from last week. Don’t forget to click on the photos to open them in a larger, sharper format for viewing.
All of these photos were done with the Canon 7D camera and 500 mm IS lens on a Gitzo cf tripod with Wimberley head. For the warbler shots, I added a 1.4X teleconverter and fill flash. I had to boost the ISO settings to compensate for the cloud cover and dark shade, but the Photoshop noise reduction tool helped smooth out the noise that created.