South Texas Birding Workshop Report 2013

Bewick's Wren
Bewick’s Wren, south Texas. Small species are incredibly hard to photograph unless you are in a blind or hide.

I brought a group of four photographers to south Texas, where we had the opportunity to photograph birds and wildlife from private blinds. In wildlife photography, the challenges are numerous. For birds, especially, it is extremely difficult to get close enough to fill the frame, even with a super-telephoto lens. Here are the main challenges with wildlife/bird photography:

Three big challenges in bird photography

  1. Get close. If you can get close to the subject, you’ll not only fill more of the frame with it, but you’ll get more accurate focus placement. Most birds have a fairly large “comfort zone,” which makes it hard to get anywhere near them. To fill the frame reasonably well with a typical bird like a northern cardinal, you’ll need to be within 30 feet and use a long focal length.

    Northern cardinal, south Texas. I was practically at the near focus limit (17 feet) with my Nikon 600mm lens for this shot.
    Northern cardinal, south Texas. I was practically at the near focus limit (17 feet) with my Nikon 600mm lens for this shot.
  2. It’s all about the background. The closer the subject is to the background, the less isolated it becomes in the shot. While a shallow DOF is helpful for blurring backgrounds, the best approach is to have good spacing between a relatively close subject and the background. Anytime you can get a clean, distant background, your subject will literally pop off the screen.

    Golden-fronted woodpecker
    Golden-fronted woodpecker, south Texas. When there’s good separation between your subject and the background, you get really clean shots.
  3. Capture behaviors other than perching. Bird portraits are great, and I have a lot of them. However, the special shots are created when you can capture something that evokes emotion. It can be flight, movement, or something as simple as an open beak.

    Crested caracara
    Crested caracara, south Texas. Getting action shots of birds is tough, but with patience and practice it can be done.

What’s the solution?

The easiest way to solve these challenges is to photograph from a blind. Once birds are accustomed to the blind, you’ll be able to photograph them from the close distances needed to get better framing and subject isolation. If you’re constructing your own blind/hide setup, consider placing perches far enough away from thick wooded areas so that you’ll get clean backgrounds. Of course, it is important to have some nearby trees that the birds can use as “staging areas” before they hit your perch or feeder.

There is no better place to photograph small birds than the private blinds in South Texas. We photographed for three days on the Dos Venadas and Campos Viejos ranches, and it was a totally wonderful experience. First, the blinds are set up to maximize either morning or afternoon light. We shoot west-facing blinds in the morning and east-facing blinds in the afternoon. These permanent blinds have feeders nearby and water holes to attract all kinds of critters, including squirrels, frogs, snakes, and insects. Moreover, the blinds are set up with clean backgrounds in mind, so you can get amazing subject isolation. When you’re shooting from a blind, you can’t easily change your position, so it’s key to have a good setup in the field.

Scissor-tailed flycatcher, south Texas. In south Texas, you can see all kinds of otherwise hard to photograph bird species.
Scissor-tailed flycatcher, south Texas. In south Texas, you can see all kinds of otherwise hard to photograph bird species.

The other great thing about south Texas is that it’s home to many bird species that you just don’t see anywhere else. Green jays, golden-fronted woodpeckers, and crested caracara are all common there. But even the “usual suspects” can look great when you get a close-up photograph that would be nearly impossible anywhere else.

Green jay, south Texas. This species of jay isn't found anywhere else in the USA.
Green jay, south Texas. This species of jay isn’t found anywhere else in the USA.

In addition to the great shooting opportunities, we also were able to stay on the premises. That cut down our morning “commute” to less than 10 minutes. In the past, I’d stayed in Rio Grande City, which is about 40 minutes away from the shooting locations. Add to that three full meals a day and happy hour each evening, and you have the ingredients for a fantastic trip. Everyone left the lodge with full memory cards and full bellies! I can’t wait to go back next year.

Happy photographers and friends at Campos Viejos lodge, 2013.
Happy photographers and friends at Campos Viejos lodge, 2013.

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2 thoughts on “South Texas Birding Workshop Report 2013”

  1. Bob-
    If you have a crop-sensor camera like a Nikon D7000, then the new 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 AFS G VRII is the perfect choice. If you have a “full frame” camera, then you’d probably want something a bit longer. A 300mm lens is a little bit short for the smaller birds, but great for the flying raptors.

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