Our traditional trip west to work as volunteers in Grand Teton National Park took a detour this year — so that I could participate in a photography workshop in southern Texas. This side trip of 2,000 miles doubled the usual trip, but it created fun adventures for both of us. One of Dave’s brothers hopped in the truck to ride along and experience RV life for the first time on a section of the drive, while I went to photograph wildlife that didn’t require a hike first.
In years past, Dave and I attended events labeled as wildlife photography workshops only to be disappointed to discover they were really wildlife chauffeur services. Someone would drive around until they found something to photograph and let everyone off the bus. Camera operation or shooting techniques were never discussed. I would shoot a lot of frames but very few were ‘keepers,’ and so I felt I needed help with using my camera. YouTube wasn’t cutting it. Dave found me just the program! I am attending the Birds of South Texas Photography Workshop run by John Gerlach and Dixie Calderone. https://www.gerlachnaturephoto.com
What an eye opening experience!
The workshop has brought me to McAllen and Edinburg, two towns in the Lower Rio Grande Valley near the southern tip of Texas and the Gulf of Mexico. The communities happily rest in a major bird migration corridor, where Northern birds come to escape cold winter, and birds of Mexico visit to take advantage of the breeding habitats. http://www.theworldbirdingcenter.com
Our schedule starts early — the cars leave our hotel by 6:15am for a fifteen minute drive up the highway and another fifteen minutes along a dusty dirt road to the gate of our playground for the week. An ex-cattle ranch has repurposed itself as a place to come and see Texas and migratory birds. I thought I would be sitting quietly under the shade of a tree waiting for birds/animals to come by, and then hopefully capturing them with my camera. I mean, that is how I do it when I am out on my own.
I am about to be introduced to the power of photography blinds.
The ranch has a central rendezvous pavilion, with a large shed for prop storage, and a toilet. From there, red dirt tracks spread out to a variety of blind types and locations.
I am sure there are a lot of variations on construction technique and materials, but I will describe what I saw and experienced during this week. As the name implies, blinds are structures to hide humans, making the birds blind to us. The rancher built plywood shells with the side and front walls cut away, and the openings covered with strips of camouflage colored screening. The slit openings in the screen let our camera lenses poke through while keeping the rest of us hidden.
Our first morning is very dramatic — four hours at the raptor blind. There are three blinds — sufficient room for students and instructors. In front of the blinds there is a cleared area I refer to as the “stage,” the place where all the drama and action happens. Several yards apart are three cactus plants covered in bright yellow blooms with some tree branches for perches, a snag tree, and a bare spot on the ground, front and center. Behind the living props is a wide beige grassy field running to the edge of a deep green tree-line.
One of the blinds is set on little dirt hillocks for an elevated view of the stage as well as being close to eye level with the tree snag perches. One blind is dug into the ground so that a camera will be at grass level to the walking birds. The last blind simply rests on the natural ground level. While we set up our tripods and cameras, our instructors John and Dixie put bait out on the ’stage’ before us, smearing hamburger on the back side of the branches or in hollows within the cactus arms — out of camera view. A frozen ball of chicken bits (yum!) is staked to the bare spot in front. Almost before John returns to his blind, we can see birds arriving and begin circling, stacking up like inbound air traffic at O’Hare, checking things out.
The Crested Caracara are the first to arrive. I have never seen them before and find them hilarious to watch! They are surprisingly good at walking, which looks more like a very proud strut on the ground that would make any runway model jealous. A couple of the birds are in courting mode, which means lots of vocalizing including throwing their heads back until the top of their head touches their shoulder blades, and more physical acts of courtship. In the pecking order of raptor life, Caracaras have precedence at a carcass over the next two arrivals.
With a six foot wing span, turkey vultures are the next birds to glide in. [Our instructors chose this morning at this blind because the weather report forecast a wind direction that meant the birds, who land and take off into the wind just like aircraft, would be facing the blinds when they flew.] From some angles, a cherry red vulture’s face seems pretty benign. But gee, when they face you head on, the white growths under their eyes and hunched shoulders make them extremely foreboding and menacing! Their interactions with each other could be violent — I saw one vulture take exception to others of his kind on the same perch, lean over, and bite the wing of his neighbor, before proceeding to chase off the other bird with an evil eye.
The last to arrive are half a dozen Black Vultures. They seem to stand off, observing, mildly amused by the goings on at the chicken ball tussle. Eventually, they duck in to grab their bite.
All together, there were between two and three dozen birds running, feeding, hopping, flapping, and fighting over perches across the stage. And eating. Lots of eating. As the bait ran low, the instructors would go out and restock the larder. Believe it or not, there was even a plan tied to where they placed the bait.
To begin, bait was liberally spread across the whole stage. This encouraged space between the birds and a wide area they would want to land in. The advantage to the photographer is that we can feature a single bird in our shot, as well as practice the skill of panning and tracking a bird in flight as they come in to land. (I still need a lot of work on this!)
On the next bait round, food was kept closer to the center, encouraging more interaction between the birds — like arguing over perch space. Eventually, the bait, though generous, was placed in a very few spots, driving the birds to feed closer together which actually would be more normal behavior at a single carcass. This is when the chicken ball was the center of an energetic scrum involving all three breeds of vulture as well as some wing on wing fighting — requiring me to learn to shoot in burst mode.
Without the blinds, the birds maintained a 100+ yard distance from the bait, evidenced by their flying off the minute a person steps out from cover to restock food, and how very close they come to the blinds when they can not see anyone. Without the blinds I cannot make the shots I do.
I shot 6804 images in 4 hours! I am feeling proud of myself for having made a first pass through the mornings photos and keeping only 1464 images!
After the bait was eaten and the birds moved on, we head to town for lunch, and back to the hotel to plug in batteries and try to download our images to make space on our memory cards. At 3:15 wheels are rolling again and we head back.
In addition to the large raptor blind the ranch has blinds designed with other bird types in mind. These are smaller, more intimate stage set ups, that are sun oriented.
The blinds facing west are the morning blinds, and the ones facing east are the afternoon blinds — so that the sun comes over your shoulder sort-of-speak and shines on the birds (hopefully) in front of you.
This afternoon we are at the sun-oriented song bird blinds. These set ups are smaller and so the class split into two groups. We rotate through the blinds the rest of the week.
The song bird blinds have a few things in common — always deep cover of bushes and trees set close to a shallow artificial pond about 8 feet in diameter and about three inches deep. There is a faucet so we can create a drip, the sound of water drawing the birds in. Bait of suet and seeds is strategically placed on the backside of various stage-prop perches and flowering shrubs brought from a local nursery. The ranch owner periodically mows a 100 yard patch of the grass behind the pond so that the background of the photographs is pleasingly out of focus and the birds stand out in our photos. Many of these blinds are also sunk into the ground so that our cameras are almost at eye level with the wading birds and there is potential to capture some bird reflections in the pond.
We shoot from the blinds until it is too dark, then head to town for dinner, returning to the hotel at 10pm, to put the next set of batteries in the chargers, download the rest of our photos and hopefully peek at what we had come home with. Oh, and maybe a little sleep.
Next I will share what birds visited us at the song bird blinds and a few tips I picked up using my camera seated next to my instructor.