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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Southwestern Safaris

Extraordinary wildlife photo opportunities exist on the expansive ranches of Texas and northeastern Mexico

This Article Features Photo Zoom

safaris A western diamondback rattlesnake captures its prey, a green jay, in the wilds of the Rio Grande Valley in southern Texas.
So a wildlife photo safari to Africa or the Pantanal isn’t in your budget. Don’t put away your camera! Several ranches with spectacular wildlife diversity and facilities for photographers await in the Texas Hill Country, the Rio Grande Valley and the state of Tamaulipas in Mexico, with many animals that are almost impossible to photograph anywhere else. Don’t like crowded national parks? Besides staff, you may be the only person on the ranch. Imagine a thousand acres of wildlife habitat all to yourself!

Different ranches have different habitats, so species may vary from one ranch to the next. If you’re after specific species, concentrate on ranches that list those. If you’re interested in wildlife variety, schedule ranches that offer different habitats. Many ranch websites will include species lists, and many ranches have built photo blinds at water holes and feeding stations and have acclimated the wildlife to these setups. Some ranches offer lodging, and some offer meals.

AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 200-400mm
safaris Two young white-tailed deer bucks spar playfully at a staked-out water hole in southern Texas.
At most ranches, you’re alone in the blind. If unfamiliar with the area, consider hiring a guide who can identify species and help find smaller species like insects and reptiles. Several Rio Grande Valley guides are professional wildlife photographers who also will help with photo techniques. A rancher may offer to guide you or may recommend local guides. One rancher showed me a mesquite snag with a resident Eastern screech owl she knew about. I got great images of the owl in its own environment. The Dos Venadas ranch owner, an excellent wildlife photographer, alerted me to Ruthven’s whip snakes on his property, and I was able to photograph a reptile I had never seen before.

Planning Your Trip
Do your research. What species are potential subjects, when and where are they present, and what about breeding activity? Are they endangered or threatened? Talk with ranchers about resident species, facilities, access, roads and weather. How many days should you allow? Do you want to visit more than one area? Ask the rancher if he or she requires a minimum number of people. Many ranch hands are familiar with wildlife on the property and can help locate hard-to-find subjects like insects and reptiles. Since most of the blinds hold two or more people, consider going with a photographer friend to reduce individual expenses, especially if you plan to drive to Texas. Some ranchers prefer working with small groups, so signing up with a professional photographer or tour operator who schedules trips to the area may be your best option.


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