The desolate landscape of the South Texas Brush Country doesn’t look like much, but it percolates with life. In fact, while many of the world’s other destinations lose species, South Texas’ biodiversity makes it one of North America’s best places for wildlife photography. It’s surely one of my favorites, and I invite you to make it one of yours!
With your first glance at the South Texas Brush Country, you’ll swear that you’ve arrived in a barren no-man’s-land. The acacia-ridden, thorny landscape seems bereft of life. But in this case, looks truly do deceive!
Harris’s hawks dot landscapes and skies everywhere here. These white and rufous colored birds are North America’s only raptors known to engage in cooperative hunting, usually in pairs or trios. Another photogenic South Texas raptor is the crested caracara. Get great action shots as these falcon-family members battle it out with turkey vultures over carrion meals.
Over 450 species of birds migrate through South Texas each winter, many of them songbirds. Come summer, painted buntings bring beautiful tunes and rainbow colors. You also have the chance to photograph year-round beauties such as green jays, greater roadrunners, great kiskadees, northern cardinals, pyrrhuloxias, couch’s kingbirds, screech owls, chachalacas, vermilion flycatchers, altamira orioles, curved-bill thrashers, cactus wrens, black-throated sparrows and white-winged doves.
The giant—but gentle—Texas indigo snake calls the Brush Country home, too, sometimes at lengths of up to 9 feet. Unless you’re a rattler—a favorite meal—you won’t consider this state threatened species aggressive.
And, of course, come also to photograph a special South Texas legend—the javelina (a.k.a. collared peccary). Not gifted with keen eyesight, collared peccaries rely heavily on their sense of smell and one another as they travel in herds.
Scientists classify South Texas as a “semi-arid, sub-tropical” region. The result? Lots of biodiversity, a large number of bird species living at the far northern edges of their ranges and warm weather most of the time.
South Texas winters bring occasional cold snaps, but they never last long. Overall, precipitation is sparse and unpredictable, although late summer and/or fall can bring periods of heavy rain if a tropical system makes landfall since the region lies close to the Gulf of Mexico.
By late May temperatures turn hot (around 100°F/38°C). While that’s bad news for most humans, it’s good news for wildlife photographers because the animals grow more active.
While South Texas has plenty of amazing mammals and interesting reptiles, its primary photographic subject is its birds. Most of those known as “South Texas Specialties” are the year-round residents I noted above. However, spring migration dramatically boosts the number of species you can focus on.
Peak migration occurs in mid-April and a fall-out on the coast can bring a marvelous photographic experience. By the end of April, the summer breeders, such as painted buntings, varied buntings and scissor-tailed flycatchers have arrived.
The best photography occurs when the animals are hot and thirsty. They flock to water to drink and cool off. Painted buntings, in particular, really like their baths! This makes late-May and June prime time for South Texas Brush Country photography. But prepare yourself for the heat; when the animals are hot and thirsty, you are too!
South Texas is blessed with several parks and preserves for birds and other wildlife. However, if your goal is photography rather than observation, I highly recommend one of the private ranches set up for photography. These private lands have blinds designed specifically for photographers. They take into account factors like light direction, backgrounds, interesting perches and water features. You’ll see birds and animals within 20 feet of you going about their lives in full view of your lens. Many photo ranches even have specially created raptor blinds.
Ranches charge by the day and, while rates vary, all ranches that I know of include both a morning and an evening shoot. But I don’t mind paying the fee. Not only are you financially rewarding private landowners who support biodiversity, but you also get a superior photography experience. Bottom line: In my opinion, South Texas photo ranches offer one of the best opportunities in the United States today for the wildlife photographer.
Texas native Jeff Parker spent much of his childhood on family land exploring the South Texas Brush Country/Lower Rio Grande Valley. He knows the flora and fauna of the region well. Explore in Focus™ with him: www.ExploreinFocus.com.