Remembering Last Spring


While organizing photo files last week, I came across a number of  shots from a morning trip last spring to South Padre Island (SPI), Texas.  They reminded me that being on SPI in late April, rubbing elbows with dozens of other photographers is always a special event.  On this day, every clump of trees was teeming with colorful, migrating songbirds.  Maybe the best part of this trip was that I didn’t have to spend hours crouched in a photo blind or arranging perches and water drips to attract the birds… I just parked the car, grabbed the camera and start shooting.

These photos were taken in one morning on the grounds at SPI’s Convention Center.

Baltimore Oriole, male perched, April.
Baltimore Oriole, male perched, April.

On this day, a large number of Baltimore Orioles had just arrived.  Most were searching for food and water and didn’t pay much attention to the photographers.

Male Baltimore Orioles in spring migration.

Getting into position for a photo that offers a clean background and reasonably good lighting can be a photographer’s greatest challenge.

Male and female Baltimore Orioles fighting.
Indigo Bunting male perched, April.

First time visitors are always shocked at the variety and color of all those warblers, buntings, grosbeaks, tanagers, etc. crammed into a small woodlot.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak male perched, April.
Worm-eating Warbler searching for insects.

Some of the birds like this Worm Eating Warbler are unusual finds and they aren’t much for posing.  Photographers have to spot, focus and shoot quickly or the opportunity will be gone.

A motionless Yellow-billed Cuckoo watching for juicy caterpillars.
Foraging Yellow Warblers are easy to spot and hard to photograph.
White-eyed Vireo perched, April.

So, this is a small sample of what can be seen and photographed on a good morning.  These shots were made with Canon 500 mm and 100-400 mm lenses and Canon 7d Mark II camera.




From the Backyard

 After an August trip to the Davis Mountains in west Texas for hummingbirds, I decided to stay close to home until the weather improved.  That is to say, I stayed in the house and close to the air conditioner for most of September.

Late in the month, the first migrating hummingbirds began arriving.  It was the first autumn in many years when “hummers” came this far inland on their journey south.  Perhaps hurricane “Harvey” steered them slightly off the normal course, but whatever the cause, we were happy to see them.

While there weren’t many, 6-8 birds were enough to convince me I should break out the tripods and flashes to capture as many ruby-throated and black-chinned hummingbird photos as possible while they stopped to feed.

Today’s newsletter has a few of those birds and one or two shots of resident wildlife… anoles.

Remember, you can click on a photo to enlarge and sharpen it.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird male nectaring at red salvia, s. Texas.
Male rubythroat flying up to salvia blooms.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird hovering in flower garden.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird, male feeding at garden flowers.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird, male feeding at garden flowers

All the hummingbird photos were done with the aid of four flashes  on the bird and two on the background with each set at 1/32nd power.  The result is a pulse of light lasting about 1/12,000th second.  Such a short duration of light stops a bird’s wing beat and other motion.  The camera settings for each shot were approximately 1/200th second, f 22 and ISO 200 so that only the flashes provided enough light to properly expose the subject.  Each was captured with a Canon 7D Mark II camera and Canon 500 mm f4 lens.

Broad-winged Hawk migration over McAllen in mid-September.
Bark Anole (Anolis distichus) extending dewlap.
Bark Anole trying to attract a female.

I’m sorry so much time elapsed since the last newsletter.  Most people are using Facebook to share photos these days, so I got in the habit of posting images in that forum.  I’ll try to continue doing both.



Another Look at the Lucifer Hummingbird

Only one slot remains for some lucky person who wants to photograph hummingbirds next month in the Christmas and Davis Mountains of Texas.  Take a look at these images from last year’s trip and contact me if you are interested.  This year, we should have a good chance to see Magnificant (Rivoli’s), Rufous, Broad-billed, Calliope, Black-chinned and Lucifer Hummingbirds.

Click on an image to automatically enlarge and sharpen it for better viewing.

Lucifer Hummingbird, male on yucca leaf, Christmas Mountains, Texas.
Female Lucifer hummingbird drinking at garden flower, west Texas.
Lucifer hummingbird drinking at garden flower, west Texas.
Lucifer Hummingbird, male perched in cat claw bush, Christmas Mountains, Texas.
Male Lucifer hummingbird feeding at garden flower, west Texas.

This trip will be part of the Davis Mountains Hummingbird Festival.  I’ll be your photography guide.  The multi-flash set up will be available for flight shots like these.  The perch shots were done without flash in a totally natural setting near feeders.


Go to 956-330-2114 or to register.  Get more details at my website (  When the site opens, just click on Photo Tour Schedule.

Davis Mountains at Mid-Summer

In case you are wondering, the Davis Mountains are often much cooler than the rest of Texas this time of year.  My family spent a few days out there last week and it sure was nice.  Unfortunately, the hummingbirds were in mid-molt and looked pretty scruffy.  There were 20 or so of the birds at the feeders where we were staying but they just didn’t offer much for pretty shots.

It wasn’t a photo trip, but I managed to capture a few shots along the way: click on an image to enlarge and sharpen it for better viewing.

Female black-chinned hummingbird flying from her perch on a yucca leaf.
Ladder-backed Woodpecker on his way to a hummingbird feeder for lunch.
View of Davis Mountains from ridge line trail above Indian Lodge at Davis Mountains State Park, Texas.
Davis Mountains grassland in late afternoon.
Grandson,Blake Ditto, on trail above Indian Lodge at Davis Mountains State Park, Texas.  The lad is only 6’2″ , he knew when to quit.
Aoudad sheep in Davis Mountains, Texas.
Lesser Goldfinch male perched on Agarita stem.
Agave leaves in soft light.
Scaled Quail in Davis Mountains grassland, Texas.

So, there you have it.  It was in the mid 80’s all week at Fort Davis while McAllen was basking in the 105-110 degree zone.


Transition Ranch 2017

Some of you have been asking “why is the ranch called “Transition Ranch”.  Well, it sits in an ecological transition zone between the Texas hill country, west Texas desert area and the south Texas brush country.  Hence, the name.  It’s the ranch’s location that gives it so much diversity of bird life.

Five photographers joined me in late April for the spring photo tour and I have a couple of their photos to share plus a few I was lucky enough to capture.

Raccoon drinking

This very old raccoon actually had only one eye, so he looked pretty bad.  I added a new left eye to make him presentable…no extra charge for the cosmetic surgery.

Fox Squirrel looking for bird seed.

I photographed this fox squirrel in a perch tree added by the ranch owner at a photo blind (the same location as the raccoon and some of the bird images to follow).

Gulf Fritillary watering on hill country stream.

Butterflies were frequent visitors to the water drip site by one of the “morning” blinds.

Spiny Crevice Lizard sunning.

This sunning Spiny Crevice Lizard looked much better on this perch than a bird would.  Occasionally, sites are fitted with “perches” that are too large and sun-bleached to work well for bird photos.

Oklahoma photographer, Mark Cromwell, spotted this MacGillivray’s Warbler as it drank at the new morning blind.

Mark Cromwell sees things the rest of us miss.  After getting the MacGillivray’s Warbler, he got this shot (below) of a hummingbird bathing on the wing at a water drip.

Hummer bathing in flight at a water drip.
Black-headed Grosbeak juvenile drinking

We got our first Black-headed Grosbeak this year at Transition Ranch.

Lazuli Bunting male drinking

Lazuli Buntings made several appearances this year… a thrilling site for those of us who live east of their range.

Lazuli Bunting male in white brush bush.
Painted Bunting female drinking from limestone creek bottom pool.

Painted Buntings visited all the Transition Ranch blinds this spring.

Well marked Painted Bunting male drinking.
Young and adult Black-throated Sparrow on limb.

Transition Ranch has lots of sparrows in the spring.

Clay-colored Sparrows appeared at the photo blinds along with Black-throated, Olive, White-crowned, Lincoln’s and more.
Blurry Nashville Warbler in flight.

There is seldom enough light to allow the capture of sharp images of warblers in flight, but I liked this blurred shot.

Orange-crowned Warbler landing.
Audubon’s Warbler male on stump.

Yellow-rumped Warblers (Audubon’s in this case) are always beautiful in breeding plumage.

Nashville Warblers were especially abundant this spring at Transition Ranch.
This male Yellow Warbler made my day.
Lesser Goldfinch male eating white brush flowers.
Northern Cardinal flushing from creek bed drink site.
Hen Northern Bobwhite feeding by stump.
Hooded Oriole Male in Texas persimmon tree.
Orchard Oriole, male hopping along a branch.

Orioles are always jumpy and hard to photograph, but we got these plus Scott’s Oriole this year.

Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay on log.

I always enjoy capturing a bit of action (like this bird’s foot in the air) to add interest to a photo.

Yellow-breasted Chat perched in thorny habitat.
Immature summer tanager male.
Summer Tanager male in white brush, Transition Ranch.

I hope you get the idea; Transition Ranch has a lot of birds in the spring.


One More Photo Tour This Summer

In mid-August, I’ll be headed back to west Texas for one last instructional photography tour.  Then a new season begins and it will be time to develop a new schedule for 2017-2018.  That west Texas trip will begin in the Christmas Mountains and then we will move a few miles over to the Davis Mountains.  It is all a part of the Davis Mountains Hummingbird Celebration.  This might be a great opportunity to photograph several species of hummers right here in Texas.  Check my website Photo Tour Schedule for details. If you are interested, send me an email and I’ll get you registered and provide the details.  The photo tour will accommodate eight people and only three slots are left.

Here are some photos from the recent trip to the Christmas Mountains Oasis for Lucifer Hummingbirds and other species. Note that some of the images are provided by the participants.

Remember to click on an image to enlarge and sharpen it for better viewing.

Noel Ice’s male Lucifer Hummingbird headed to the camera.
Kimberly Smith’s Christmas Mountains panorama.

Kim captured a Bell’s Vireo eating an insect.
Kimberly’s Blue Grosbeak near the hummingbird feeders at Christmas Mountains Oasis.
Natural light on a male Lucifer Hummingbird by Kimberly Smith.
Gene Forsythe captured an Ash-throated Flycatcher in flight.
Male Lucifer under the lights by Gene Forsythe.
Forsythe captured some interesting lighting on the throat of this Lucifer Hummingbird male.

The following images are mine.  After the fact, I realized I’d missed a lot of good shooting while tending the hummingbird flash setup, but the group got some good diversity in their images.

All of my photos were done with the Canon 1D Mark II, 500 mm Canon Lens, Gitzo 1348 tripod and Wimberly head.

Here are 3 varied bunting images I really liked from my collection:

Male Varied Bunting foraging.
Varied Bunting male in creosote bush
Curious male Varied Bunting.
Rain at sunset, Christmas Mountains, Texas.
Moonrise over Christmas Mountains as vulture passes.
Throat colors on a male Lucifer Hummingbird.
Male Lucifer Hummingbird at Indian Paintbrush.
Lucifer Hummingbird in flight.
Scaled Quail on rocks, Christmas Mountains, Texas.
Why some people call them “blue” quail.
Bell’s Vireo in catclaw bush
Bell’s Vireo singing.
Elf Owl at night near the Terlingua Ranch Lodge.
Elf Owl on perch.

There were many more birds I couldn’t show here, but you should be getting the idea that the Christmas Mountains Oasis is pretty special.  Thanks to all the participating photographers for sharing your images.


More Block Creek Natural Area

Well, you got to see some of the photo tour participants’ photos from out visit to the Block Creek Natural Area.  If you didn’t get enough, here are a few of mine.

Don’t forget to click on an image to enlarge and sharpen it for better viewing.

Eastern Bluebird, male perched
Eastern Bluebird landing
Lesser Goldfinch pair
Late afternoon at a hummingbird feeder, Block Creek NA
Block Creek Photo Tour group focused on owls.
Vermilion Flycatcher male on rail fence.
Sphinyx Moth feeding at thistle bloom.
Ladder-backed Woodpecker, male on mesquite.
Painted Bunting male on mullein stalk.
Big Gobbler too close for the 500 mm, but I like the crop anyway.
Eastern Screech Owl: how about those peepers?
Bewick’s Wren on fence post.
Harris’s Hawk landing, Canon 7d Mark II and 70-200 mm lens


…and last but not least, my favorite shot of this batch is the great horned owl and red barn.

Great Horned Owl and barn.  Canon 7d Mark II and 70-200 mm 2.8 lens, hand held

Soon, I’ll be sharing shots from the Transition Ranch Photo Tour.


Block Creek Natural Area

Three weeks after the FeatherFest trip, I was at the Block Creek Natural Area with five photographers to “focus” on several species.   As you will see, they seemed most impressed by the wild turkeys, hawks and hummingbirds.

All the following shots were made by the group and I think it’s an impressive collection.

Remember, if you click on an image, it will enlarge and sharpen for better viewing.

Three images by Barbara Pickthall:

Black-chinned Hummingbird feeding at thistle flower.
Male Eastern Bluebird flying to nest box.
Strutting Wild Turkey gobblers.

Two images by Larry Urquhart:

Male Black-chinned Hummingbird feeding.

Black-chinned Hummingbirds feeding at Prickly Pear Cactus blooms.

Four photos by Jack Emsoff:

Wild Turkey gobbler strutting.
Getting the red-tailed hawk closeup.
Harris’s Hawk landing.
Black-chinned Hummingbirds feeding at Prickly Pear Cactus blooms.

Two photos by Tom Pickthall:

Painted Bunting male foraging.
Wild Turkey gobbler in wildflowers.

Kimberly Smith, our fifth photographer, wasn’t able to submit images for this newsletter, but some of her shots will be featured in a future newsletter on the Christmas Mountains Lucifer Hummingbird Photo Tour.

Way to go photographers.  Thanks for sharing your beautiful photos.


Coastal Birds in April

 Galveston’s FeatherFest was almost two months ago.  How did I get this far behind?  The short version of a long story is this…I booked too many trips and took on too many photo projects this spring.  It was fun but grueling.  Anyway, here we are with plenty of time to look back and enjoy some of the images captured along the way.

During the first week of April, I led a photo trip on Kevin Sims’ boat at Rockport to photograph colonial nesting birds along the coast.  That was followed by two days with groups at High Island and Galveston Bay.  The weather was fantastic and we had a ball.

Here are some of my favorite shots from those outings:  When you click on an image it will enlarge and sharpen for better viewing.

Black-bellied Whistling Duck stretching wings at Paradise Pond.

After photographing along the islands of Aransas Bay in the morning, we headed south to Port Aransas for the afternoon at Paradise Pond and the Birding Center.

Green Heron walking a dead willow branch in Port Aransas.
Red-winged Blackbird flying from cattail perch at the Port Aransas Birding Center.
Great Egret displaying at nest, Aransas Bay, Texas.

Recommendation: when you are photographing at a nesting colony, set the big lens aside and go with a more flexible zoom lens (100-400 mm is ideal for me).   In doing so, fewer wings are clipped on the flight shots and you have more room in the frame for bird behavior or multiple birds at once.

Great Egret landing.

Large birds look best in flight when they are banking into a turn.  We got lots of photo opportunities working from Kevin’s boat as birds returned to the island with nest material and to feed young.

Roseate Spoonbill with nest material.
Great Blue Heron in flight at first light.
Great Egrets courtship display at High Island.

The rookery at High Island offered many nice shots of roseate spoonbills and various egrets engaged in mating and nest building.

Brown Pelican adults in flight.

Bird photography on Galveston Bay (also from Kevin’s boat) during FeatherFest, was superb.  We enjoyed an afternoon with brown pelicans, spoonbills, terns, skimmers and more.

Royal Tern carrying fish.


Roseate Spoonbill landing on oyster bar with laughing gulls, spring.

Late in the day, we couldn’t quit “shooting” passing black skimmers.

Black Skimmer after sunset on Galveston Bay.
Black Skimmer in flight at sunset.
Black Skimmer after sunset.

Then, as the light faded, I just had to get one more slow shutter speed shot of these pelicans.

Brown Pelican trio in blurred flight after sunset at 1/160 second.

There is no place for bird photography like the Texas coast in April.





The Beauty of Big Bend

The Big Bend National Park area was as beautiful in late March as ever. Five photographers and I spent three busy days traveling about the vastness that is Big Bend. Most of our photography was done at sunrise, sunset and after dark in iconic locations like Santa Elena Canyon, Boquillas Rim, Rio Grande Village, The Window at Chisos Mountains, Terlingua cemetery and the Rio Grande in Big Bend Ranch State Park. Unlike recent years, we saw only a handful of wildflowers and blooming yucca, but there was plenty to photograph.

I still want to go back and kayak or float the river gorge, but I got plenty of exercise hiking to Balanced Rock and scaling down a rock slide in the Rio Grande canyon at Big Bend Ranch State Park. The journey from south Texas to the park takes a FULL day, but the reward is great. For those of us living in the city, the west Texas night skies are reward enough for the effort. Come along with me on a brief photo trip to the Big Bend.

Click on a photo to enlarge and sharpen it for viewing. 

Black Hawk in Cottonwood, Big Bend National Park.

A beautiful pair of black hawks are nesting in a cottonwood at Rio Grande Village in Big Bend National Park.  After many visits over the years, I was finally able to see and photograph them from the road.  The nesting area is closed to visitors.  Canon 7D mark II, 100-400 mm lens, hand held.

Chisos Mountains and Rio Grande at Big Bend Natl. Park, Texas.

That same afternoon, we journeyed on to the campgrounds at the east end of the village and climbed the hill for a view of the sun setting behind the Chisos Mountains  in the west and the glowing pinks of Boquillas rim to the east.

Boquillas rim at sunset, Big Bend National Park.
Pebbles in the Rio Grande surrounded by 1500′ walls of rock. Mexico on left, Texas on right in Big Bend National Park.

The walls stay the same but the river is ever changing.  I’d like to return in summer and catch the sun setting down the canyon at Santa Elena.

Photographing the Rio Grande near Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend National Park, Texas.

After leaving the canyon shortly after dawn, we stopped downstream to look back at the big picture…miles of cliffs towering above the river.  I used HDR toning on this image to jazz up the look of it.

Verbina and Chisos Basin, Big Bend NP.

Evening in the Chisos Basin provides many angles and subjects.  These verbinas were about the only cluster of wildflower I spotted that week.

Oak and sotol in the Chisos Mountains, Big Bend National Park at sunset.

I like to work on foreground subjects near the Window near Big Bend NP Lodge and Restaurant.

Sotol in “The Window” of Chisos Mountains, Big Bend National Park at sunset.

The photo group got many nice images of The Window with clouds at sunset.

Sunset on Casa Grande with piñyon pines.


Sunrise on the Rio Grande canyon east of Presidio, Texas in Big Bend Ranch State Park.


Looking west, Presidio, Texas is upriver and out of sight by a few miles from this point in the canyon.   A well timed sunset visit would make me very happy.  I’ll have to plan for that one on the next trip.

Ocotillo and prickly pear catch the first light in this canyon.
Canoeing the Rio Grande at Big Bend  Ranch State Park, Texas.


Just downstream toward Lajitas, there is a take out for these canoes and a really cool roadside park with tepees shading the picnic tables.

Ocotillo in bloom near Tepee Roadside Park on the Rio Grande, Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas, hwy. 170 to Presidio.
Robert Halbrook chasing Gambel’s quail through binoculars just after the birds flushed to the Mexican side of the Rio Grande from Big Bend State Park, Texas.
Robert Halbrooks, Dr. Pat Faubian, Sherry Halbrook, and Mike Faubian on the Rio Grande in Big Bend State Park, Texas.

This is the first group I’ve had with so many naturalist/birders.  Everyone had to get in on the act of seeing Gambel’s quail drinking at the Rio Grande.

Balanced Rock at sunrise, Big Bend National Park, Texas.

We walked and climbed to Balanced Rock in the Grapevine Hills at Big Bend National Park one morning.  I could see His glory in every direction.

Looking south from Balanced Rock in the Grapevine Hills at Big Bend National Park, sunrise.
Terlingua historic cemetery, Terlingua, Texas
Terlingua historic cemetery, Terlingua, Texas

Subtle differences in the amount of light painted onto these sepulchers make a huge difference in where the eye is drawn.  In the latter, I see the stars first.  A warm and slightly weak flashlight was used for both.

Ocotillo with blooms after sunset at Study Butte, Texas.

In spite of some stormy weather at the start of our week, this Big Bend IPT was one of the best I can remember.