|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
|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.
|A green anole lizard sitting atop vivid purple flowers in the Texas Hill Country.|
Timing Your Trip
Warblers, painted buntings, beautiful songbirds and numerous waterfowl species migrate through the area from mid-April to early May. Baby birds and mammals also appear in May. As baby mammals get bigger, parents may bring them to water holes where blinds are set up. There are hundreds of butterfly species with peak activity in late fall. November through January are prime months for white-tailed deer. Many ranches in the Rio Grande Valley and the Hill Country have trophy-sized bucks. If a ranch allows hunting, go before the season starts. Avoid July through September because heat and humidity are high, and migration and breeding activity are over.
Weather changes rapidly in Texas so you may need to dress in layers. You don’t do much walking on the ranches, but I recommend good, tall boots because animals, including rattlesnakes, sometimes visit blinds. Ranchers help you set up, but always check your blind before entering. In April and May, wear clothing that breathes, and take a lightweight rain parka, plenty of water and snacks into your blind. Put food in a sealed container to keep out the six-legged wildlife. Bring a towel to wipe off perspiration, and wear a long-sleeved shirt and long pants to protect your arms and legs.
Canon EF 100-400mm
Camera Equipment Considerations
A long lens is an absolute must. I bring my 500mm lens and my 200-400mm zoom lens, a 1.4x teleconverter, two camera bodies, a flash unit with a turbocharger and Fresnel lens, and a tripod into the blind. I use the long lens with a teleconverter for small birds and the zoom lens for mammals and composition flexibility. A zoom lens in the 100-400mm range or a 300mm ƒ/2.8 lens with a teleconverter also works well. Most blinds are set up with a minimum focusing distance from camera to subject of 10 to 50 feet. The longer distances are at water holes that mammals frequent. I’ve photographed deer, javelina, squirrels, songbirds, insects and snakes all from the same blind using the 500mm and 200-400mm zoom lenses.
Bring a flash unit adjustable for daylight fill-flash. Wildlife may show up in the middle of the day, and fill-flash reduces harsh contrast and poor color. In bright, midday light, start with a fill-flash setting of -1½ to -2. Check exposure using your histogram or spot meter. Bring a spare camera battery and several memory cards, a basic tool kit and good-quality lens wipes and brushes. Clean your equipment and recharge your batteries every night.
Wildlife photography requires intimate knowledge of your subject and equipment, persistence and good compositional technique. Limit movement and sound when in your blind. Your lens hood sticks out the front of the blind so move slowly to reposition your camera. Eye-level images of your subject bring intimacy to the scene. Many blinds are set into the ground, providing a comfortable way to photograph wildlife at eye level. Perches can be moved to adjust for different focal-length telephoto lenses. Take test shots and check your LCD for composition. Usually, the eye of your subject should be in focus.
A male varied bunting bathes to cool off from the Rio Grande heat.
The angle of the light striking your wildlife subject is important. Side lighting doesn’t work well with animals; it usually shades one side of the face, resulting in a poor image. Frontal lighting illuminates both sides of the face, creating a more pleasing image. How you compose your subject is critical. If the animal is looking to the side, make sure it has looking space or room on that side of the composition. Images cropped too tightly on that side make the animal looked cramped.
A northern cat-eyed snake coils itself through a patch of Texas lantana flowers in the Rio Grande Valley,Texas
Compose images to reflect a sense of place or show behavior. Watch your subject. If it repeats interesting behavior, frame the animal to include that activity. A zoom lens is a great help. To photograph insects and reptiles, use a telephoto macro lens or a regular zoom telephoto lens with extension tubes or two-element diopters. For many insects, working from about a foot away will still make them appear large in the frame.
The Wildlife Experience
Don’t let snakes or bugs deter you from a wonderful wildlife photography experience. At these ranches, you’ll find that the people are great and always helpful, the facilities are excellent and the wildlife is spectacular. Human population in Texas is growing rapidly, with tremendous pressure to convert large ranches to housing. These ranchers view wildlife photography as a nonconsumptive, revenue-generating use of resources. You capture superb wildlife images, and ranchers get income, helping them keep their ranches financially viable, a win-win situation. Go forth and bring back great images!
|Plan Your Own Safari
While the ranches listed here offer the opportunity for great mammal, bird, reptile and insect photography, there are species unique to each area that you should consider. It’s easy to set up your trip. Each group listed here has websites with details and species information, as well as contacts and people who will be happy to answer your questions and help you to arrange your visit to a specific ranch, including hotel reservations and restaurant recommendations. They also can help you with flight information and recommend airports if you wish to fly, though you should consider taking your own vehicle for flexibility.
(ABOVE: Altamira Oriole)
|Texas Hill Country Ranches
The endangered golden-cheeked warbler visits the Hill Country, its only U.S. location, in March and early April to breed. Loss of habitat limits the warbler to very few locations, including some of the photography-oriented Hill Country ranches where you have a good chance to photograph it. The endangered black-capped vireo, another Hill Country resident, is almost impossible to photograph on its federal- and state-protected habitats. The interesting (and somewhat scary) Texas giant centipede is found on several of the ranches and makes a great photo subject (from a distance, as it has a very powerful, venomous bite).
Block Creek Natural Area
Red Creek Nature Ranch
The Petersen Ranch
|Rio Grande Valley Ranches
Buff-bellied hummingbirds, Altamira orioles, great kiskadees, white-tailed hawks and brown and green jays are brilliantly colored birds found only in the Rio Grande Valley in the U.S. and are present on many of the ranches. The threatened Texas indigo snake and northern cat-eyed snake, the Texas horned lizard and Ruthven’s whip snake are Valley reptile specialties. Mammals, including white-tailed deer, bobcat, coyote, armadillo and javelina, are found on most of the Valley ranches.
|Cozad Ranch (877) 417-5053 www.cozadranch.com||Lens & Land Ranches
|The Mexico Ranches
Several northeastern Mexico ranches offer unparalleled wildlife photography. They have ocelot, jaguarundi and occasional anteater sightings. I’ve photographed red-bellied squirrels, coatis, rose-throated becards, elegant trogons, squirrel cuckoos, lineated woodpeckers, white-tailed hawks, common black hawks, Aplomado falcons and more. You easily can set up a visit to these ranches if you have four to eight people. The ranch owner will assist you with reservations. Transportation is easy through Charlie Vieh of Vieh’s Bed & Breakfast in San Benito, Texas. I suggest staying overnight at the B&B since you leave very early in the morning for the ranches. There are also numerous bird photo ops at the B&B. Transportation is in a 10-passenger van over paved roads to the ranch and takes about four to five hours. You’ll need a Mexican Tourist Card, which you can order online (www.mexicoadvisoryservices.com).
|Los Ebanos Ranch (Tamaulipas State, Mexico)
|Vieh’s Bed & Breakfast
(956) 425-4651 www.vieh.com
Dave Welling takes groups and photographers to Los Ebanos and various ranches in Texas. See more of his work at www.agpix.com/davewelling.